Amid a budget cut and a pending legislation, D.C. leaders are gearing up to ensure that this year’s Marion S. Barry Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) is the most impactful, yet.

For nearly four decades, the program has offered jobs to D.C. youth, many of whom live in neighborhoods with the city’s highest rates of poverty. On average, the program serves between 11,000 to 13,000 youth each year. Participants from the ages of 14-15 earn $5.25 per hour, participants from the ages of 16-21 receive $8.25 an hour, and those ages 22-24 bring in $12.50 an hour.

Odie Donald II, director of the Department of Employment Services, said that he is seeking public comment to improve the city’s Summer Youth Employment Ptogram. (Courtesy photo)

However, despite the number of youths the program serves, it is facing a financial loss this year, after the D.C. Council cut its budget by $2 million. “That was a huge hit,” Odie Donald II, director of the Department of Employment Services (DOES), told the AFRO. “But we are trying to ensure that no youth are affected.”

Donald said that the department has made administrative changes, staff adjustments, partnerships with new businesses, and other improvements to account for the deficit.

D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), chair of the committee on labor and workforce development, is also working to enhance the program. Last summer, she visited more than 20 SYEP worksites to get “a real on-the-ground understanding of what’s going on in the program.” Combined with input from the D.C. auditor and an independent evaluator, she found that the program’s quality is not the same for all employers and participants.

“What we want to do is have a consistent experience,” Silverman told the AFRO. In December, she proposed legislation that mandates DOES to focus more on life skills, age-appropriate job placements, the application process and slots for older youth who are not in school or working.

“It’s a very important program and a real seminal experience for young Washingtonians,” she said. “I think we can optimize it even more.”

Donald said that he is open to partnering with the D.C. council but also has reservations about the proposed legislation.

“I think that enthusiasm is commendable, but it would be helpful if she partnered with the administration on these activities because we’re the subject matter experts on implementing programs,” Donald said. “But the insight from her and the community are not only valuable, they’re also something that we want, need, and desire—I think that together we can do a much better job to enhance the program instead of drastically changing something that’s working.”

According to Donald, DOES is already in the process of making several changes outlined in the legislation.

One of the most comprehensive upgrades is to the online registration portal, which began two years ago. “This year, we believe we perfected it so the process for people who were in the program last year will be streamlined—it’s unbelievable,” Donald said.

Instead of waiting in overwhelmingly long lines at the DOES headquarters, new participants can complete registration documents online. Meanwhile, past participants will only have to provide verifications such as a picture ID and proof of residency.

The online portal also offers participants an orientation and lessons in financial planning; gives them information on worksites, schedules, and compensation; and allows them to monitor SmarTrip cards for work travel and make social media posts related to work experiences.

“They can literally do everything from their smartphone—so that’s just another big deal for us,” Donald continued.

During her research, Silverman found that many participants had not mastered “soft skills” such as dressing in appropriate work attire, communicating effectively with employers and navigating workplace conflicts.

The online portal assists with those things as well. Participants can take lessons and earn badges of completion to show that they’ve mastered these components.

In the future, Silverman hopes to see the soft skills implemented not only online but as a larger component of the program throughout the entire summer.

As for the legislation, she plans to host a youth roundtable, solicit more public feedback, conduct more research, and host another hearing to fine tune the bill. “It’s about enhancing SYEP to make sure that the skills that are important in life and professional development are in the program,” she said.

Donald envisions further progress that builds on the success of leaders who have already matriculated through the program. “My true hope is that it increases so that most D.C. mayors have gone through SYEP, many of the doctors that are keeping us healthy have gone through SYEP, one of our future police chiefs is from SYEP, that the teachers who are investing in our students are SYEP,” he said. “I hope that those folks who go through the program are really invested in D.C. to stay here and change the face of the District, but also become national leaders.”

Christina Sturdivant

Special to the AFRO