Gearing Up for SYEP 2021 – Lessons Learned, Resources Offered, and WPTI Training Opportunities

Summer 2021 is rapidly approaching, and with it comes the launch of New York City’s annual Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), a staple of the city since 1963, funded by the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD).

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had a devastating impact on SYEP, leading to funding cuts, a shift to virtual programming, and a dramatically-altered calendar with minimal time for providers to prepare for the program’s implementation. COVID-19’s arrival in the city in March 2020 had immediate and powerful effect – the program, which typically serves 75,000 young adults, was initially cancelled in April, due to both safety concerns and massive cuts to the City budget. SYEP providers had to quickly pivot, and were forced to lay off program staff or simply not hire, under the impression that the program would not take place. However, when the City was able to develop the $51 million dollar SYEP Summer Bridge initiative in partnership with the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City and the philanthropic community, providers had to scramble once again to implement a program offering a scaled-down, virtual summer experience to 35,000 young adults. Organizations had to hire staff and build programs in a matter of weeks, with the focus shifted to project-based learning and other opportunities. Many workforce development and youth services organizations also had to incorporate new virtual training and professional development tools for the first time. In spite of limited time and resources, and ever-shifting ground, the community of SYEP providers rose to the occasion and effectively provided a substantive, paid summer work experience to thousands of New York City youth, learning critical lessons in virtual workforce development programming in the process.

This year, the City has announced plans for restored SYEP funding, allowing 70,000 young adults to participate in a more robust, albeit still largely virtual program. Per Chalkbeat, the City’s preliminary budget includes $132 million for the program, on par with 2019 funding levels and a massive increase from 2020’s $51 million. This leaves providers optimistic for the success of SYEP 2021, given the increased resources and time provided, as well as the lessons learned in virtual programming from summer 2020.

We spoke with two of New York City’s SYEP providers to learn about their experience during the challenging climate of 2020 and their plans for an expanded program this summer.

The 2020 SYEP Provider Experience

Last year, many SYEP providers adapted to rapidly-shifting ground in order to implement a substantive and successful program, even with limited resources. Providers had to adapt to providing programming virtually, as well as offering a SYEP experience largely focused on service learning and project-based work experiences, as compared to internships – which had been the primary focus in prior years. Two of the organizations operating SYEP in 2020 were Henry Street Settlement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and United Activities Unlimited (UAU) on Staten Island.

According to Johanna Ramirez, Youth Employment Specialist at Henry Street Settlement, her program was able to have an “exceptionally good summer,” placing 400 young adults despite particularly challenging circumstances, which included having “two to three weeks to do all the work that [they] typically do in six months.” In part, this success was due to more flexibility from the program’s funders, including DYCD, who understood that 2020 was far from a typical year. Curriculum partners such as Youth Development Institute and Hats & Ladders provided valuable support, and the Henry Street team worked to customize the curriculum to make it relatable and compelling to their participants.

UAU had a successful SYEP experience as well, according to Tatiana Arguello, Director of Workforce Development. Similar to Henry Street, they had to hire and implement programming rapidly, upon SYEP’s partial restoration. When hiring, they had to focus on a slightly different skill set, in light of current circumstances related to COVID-19 and virtual programming. This included an additional degree of digital fluency, as well as an understanding of the socio-emotional needs of young adults dealing with trauma at a particularly challenging time. In spite of funding cuts, UAU’s education team was able to reallocate some staff to continue curriculum development for summer programming, and the organization remained in communication with partners and other providers to share ideas, best practices, and how to move forward with the summer if the program launched (which it ultimately did). Per Ms. Arguello, virtual programming actually created some new opportunities for UAU and its participants, as it gave the organization access to certain employers and work sites that might not have been partners if the program operated in-person (due to geography or other factors).

UAU developed creative projects and opportunities in order to provide both young adults and employers with a substantive experience. For example, they implemented a “Workplace Challenge,” wherein employers would provide a real-life challenge facing their business, and teams of young adults would work to study the problem and offer recommended solutions. In many cases, senior-level staff from employers engaged directly with program participants as part of this work.

Ultimately, SYEP providers, employers, and youth adapted to the challenges as well as opportunities presented by a virtual, project-based environment, enabling young adults to still have a SYEP experience in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This Year’s Program and Incorporating Lessons from 2020

With the January announcement of restored funding, SYEP providers have far more time to plan for this upcoming summer’s program. This is particularly valuable, as providers know that funding is secure and they have time to properly assess, hire, and train staff. In addition, having operated a largely-virtual program last year – with less funding and a shorter runway to prepare – providers are now increasingly well-versed with regard to the program’s virtual component, and  – according to Ms. Arguello – are confident that it will “go off without a hitch.” In addition to having more time to properly hire and train staff, organizations will be able to devote more time and energy to recruiting young adults and employers, and working with these employers to ensure a successful experience.

Given the new digital internship component for SYEP 2021, UAU has created a toolkit for employers on managing remote internships effectively, including sample job descriptions and recruitment strategies, as well as guides on how to manage young adults, schedule and lead check-ins, and more. This toolkit is only one piece of UAU’s strategy for working closely with employers, based upon the understanding that “Businesses aren’t youth development professionals” and might not have much experience working with young adults. As a result, providers have to be willing to teach their employer partners and provide some additional support.

According to Ms. Ramirez, Henry Street Settlement has also adapted some of its practices based on their 2020 experience, with a focus on ensuring the program is even more accessible to young adults. For example, they will be offering an in-person enrollment option, in addition to virtual enrollment, in order to ensure accessibility for youth who may not have the technology resources or level of digital fluency to complete their enrollment process remotely.

Lastly, Ms. Ramirez stressed the importance of understanding an organization’s capacity to run a quality SYEP program, especially in a challenging, still largely virtual environment. Given the numerous program components and high levels of need, it is essential to consider this capacity, and what is needed to provide a high quality experience to the young adults being served. This quality experience must be the number one priority.

Free Resources and Training Opportunities for Summer Youth Employment Providers

In December 2020, the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions released the Digital Summer Youth Employment Toolkit 2.0, which builds upon the Aspen Institute toolkit developed in June 2020 to help providers implement summer youth internships and other programming in a virtual, COVID-impacted environment. This digital resource is informed by the experience of workforce organizations working with opportunity youth during summer 2020, and offers strategies, resources, and case studies that can help service providers prepare for and implement SYEP 2021. The toolkit is divided into several online modules, and in addition to tips and practice guides, it offers calls to action for government, philanthropy, and other stakeholders in order to better support summer youth employment programming and increase its effectiveness. In addition,, the federal government’s website for youth programming, offers a list of  helpful resources and tools that providers can utilize as they develop and implement summer programs.

WPTI works closely with the community of SYEP providers and other youth-serving organizations, and offers training courses, funded by DYCD, to DYCD providers that can support remote internships and other programming. These can be particularly relevant and helpful to organizations operating virtual summer youth programs. As part of our WPTI Remote World of Work series, we will be offering two courses that may be especially relevant to SYEP providers, in the coming weeks. We will host “Creating and Implementing Remote Internship Programs,” a two-part training, on Tuesday, March 23 and Thursday, March 25, followed by “Finding and Pitching to Employers in the Remote World of Work” on Tuesday, April 6, and Thursday, April 8. Both of these training opportunities are open to all DYCD providers, but space is limited, and priority is given to WIOA-supported programs. To register or to request additional information, please contact your DYCD program manager.