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Student Employment Program Fails to Provide Career Experience


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BY HELEN MALHOTRA, CO-EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

The Summer Youth Employment Program, SYEP, spent close to $14 million and hired around 15,000 youths this summer to keep them off the street, out of the heat, and to give them a meaningful work experience. However, there are signs that SYEP lacks the quality service it strives to provide for DC’s youth.

In many cases, students don’t find the job experience stimulating or educational; in some cases they have nothing to do at all. Additionally, SYEP continues to pay some students who didn’t participate in the program.

“Aside from wasting taxpayer dollars, it teaches a terrible lesson both about government in general and about how we inculcate a proper work ethic in particular,” Councilmember Mary Cheh wrote in an email. The Office of the DC Auditor is currently evaluating SYEP in order to measure its effectiveness, as well as propose solutions to major problems surrounding the program. Auditor Kathleen Patterson noted that this is a high priority program for Mayor Muriel Bowser.

One of SYEP’s main goals is to help the District’s youth develop skills that they can use to pursue and maintain careers. Wilson students who worked for Coach Desmond Dunham’s summer camp through SYEP as camp counselors found it an inspiring and stimulating experience.

“It’s a great program in the sense that it helps kids have a consistent activity over the summer,” said Drew Glick, a Wilson senior who worked at Dunham’s camp this past summer.

Other work sites, however, resemble paid summer camps and do little to prepare students for today’s world work.

Junior Sarah Thompson was hired by SYEP to work at the Microsoft office in Friendship Heights this summer, but found it unproductive. “Some days I just did my summer homework or brought a book to read,” Thompson said. “My supervisor didn’t even bother to show up on the last day of work.”

Rasheeda Twitty, an SYEP participant, said in a Washington Post article that she was paid to sit in a classroom. “We take SAT classes for work. We do that for half the day, and the other half we do ‘guerrilla arts,’” Twitty said. The article defined ‘guerrilla arts’ as social media or performance-arts classes.

On a District Department of Transportation, (DDOT) site visit, Councilwoman Cheh observed two students sitting on a curb, who told her they were summer interns with SYEP. “It soon became apparent that they were given no assignments and were just told to follow the DDOT representatives and sit,” Cheh wrote.

While many people were discouraged by the amount of time they wasted, other students were getting the better end of the deal. During the second week of SYEP, debit cards were mailed out to each youth who had signed up for the program and was deemed eligible to participate, according to Vanessa Weatherington, a SYEP program manager.

However, some youths who did not accept the job they were offered or failed to show up to their job site still received cards.

“If an employee doesn’t report to work, we don’t deposit anything on the card, so the card they received in the mail is basically like an empty credit card,” said Ms. Robinson, a customer service specialist at the SYEP call center, who declined to give her first name. Contrary to Robinson’s statement, however, there have been multiple circumstances where youths registered with SYEP declined the assigned job, but still saw money deposited onto their debit card.

Freshman Mabel Malhotra registered with SYEP last school year, but decided later not to participate. She was offered a job, declined it, but still received a debit card. Three weeks into the program, Malhotra checked the balance on her card and was surprised to see that she had been getting paid for the work she was not doing.

Junior Anna Bucknum was told by SYEP headquarters that she was going to be working at McKinley Tech as a tutor. On her first day, she and the other 40 or so SYEP employees assigned to the same job site were herded into a classroom where they stayed for a while, waiting for further instruction. “Finally, this man came in and basically said, ‘We don’t have any jobs for any of you here so you need to go back to headquarters and get reassigned,’” Bucknum said.

After being reassigned to a job that she was unable to get to unless she had a car, Bucknum called the employer of the new job multiple times to decline the job, but she never received a response. She decided not to attend and hoped that someone on the other end would get the message. Through the rest of summer, Bucknum never attended her SYEP job. However, at the end of the summer, she received a letter in the mail from SYEP. It thanked her for her participation and notified her of the $250 bonus she had received for having good attendance. “It was so screwed up,” Bucknum said.

Henry Shuldiner, a 2015 Wilson graduate, applied for SYEP for the summer of 2014. After deciding he wanted to work as a lifeguard instead, he emailed the SYEP main office to decline the SYEP job he was offered. About halfway into the program, Shuldiner received a phone call regarding his Visa debit card, which had been mailed to him two weeks earlier. Out of curiosity, he signed into his account and was surprised to find $300 on the account. “By the end of the summer, I had the same amount of money [more than $700] as someone who had worked the maximum number of hours, even though I didn’t work any,” Shuldiner said.

The program runs for a total of six weeks in the summer. The amount that SYEP participants are paid depends on their age. Employees between the ages of 14 and 15 are paid $5.25 an hour for up to 20 hours a week, while 16 to 21-year-olds are paid $8.25 an hour for up to 25 hours a week. Any DC resident between the ages of 14 and 24 is allowed to participate in the recently expanded program. This summer, 544 Wilson students participated.

Despite the many occurrences of this problem, Sonai Sultana at the SYEP call center said, “that just wouldn’t be possible.” Payment issues are most likely not recorded because the people who are getting paid without having to work are content and see no need to report it.

“I have certainly heard reports of youth being paid for time they did not work,” Marcia Huff, a senior manager at the Young Women’s Project, wrote in an email.What concerns me more is that youth are not gaining valuable work experience during the summer and that the program is more about public safety than employment.” The Young Women’s Project is a nonprofit group that employed 30 participants this year.

In sum, Cheh wrote, “The program simply has to be better managed and organized.” 

GRAPHIC BY TOM GIAGTZOGLOU, GRAPHIC DESIGNER

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Student Employment Program Fails to Provide Career Experience