While the scarcity of jobs has posed a big problem for the economy as a whole, it has been even worse in Washington, D.C., where the unemployment rate currently hovers around 12 percent. And for the city’s youth, who are often overlooked in favor of older, experienced workers, the statistics are even more devastating.

Officials say with the launch of the annual Summer Youth Employment Program in June, the expectation is to hire some 22,000 between the ages of 16 and 24 – many of which will come from low-income backgrounds.  But, this year, the $40 million program will be contracted from 10 weeks to just six weeks due to budget constraints and other issues surrounding its efficiency.

“In the past , the mayor didn’t really show that he had the ability to run the program as efficiently as it could have been run,” said At-large Councilman Michael Brown, who recently succeeded Ward 8 Councilman Marion Barry as chairman of the Committee on Housing and Workforce Development. “And it resulted in a nightmare and horror stories for a lot of young people.” 

However, crediting the program, which started decades ago as then-Mayor Barry’s brain child, Brown said it has actually been used a model for similar projects across the country.

“We want to make sure that it is a program that gives our young people … the kind of experience and exposure they need from the workplace to understand work ethics and office etiquette so that they can start to dream about other things they can do in their lives,” Brown said. “And that’s really what the foundation of the program is all about.”

Last year at this time, the unemployment rate among teens stood at 22.7 percent – more than double the rate for all of the country’s jobless people. And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from April to July 2009, the number of employed youth ages 16 to 24 years old increased by 1.6 million to 19.3 million. 

Eshauna Smith, spokeswoman for the D.C. Alliance for Youth, said that while her organization has always had good access to SYEP, its major concern has revolved around the quality of jobs and of the program itself – particularly in light of the 2008 mess-up.

“Youth in this city definitely have an opportunity to get jobs this summer,” Smith said. “But our concern is in the quality of jobs and the experience of its management, which has not always been up to par.”

Smith said, however, that her agency has submitted a list of recommendations to the city to help ensure a better-run program.

“We want to make sure that our participants will be working and learning skills, rather than just sitting around with nothing meaningful to do,” Smith said. “So far, our youth have never had a problem getting the jobs; it’s what happens once they are in the program.”