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Summer jobs boost employment skills, academic aspirations, study finds

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Summer jobs aren't just a way for teens to earn extra cash and stay out of trouble. They also improve job readiness skills, lead to greater academic aspirations, and build stronger community connections, especially among youth of color, according to a new study out by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

Far fewer teens are employed than they used to be. In Massachusetts last year, only 26 percent of those age 16-19 had jobs, down from 36 percent in 2008 – a drop that could have a significant impact on the future success of today's youth, according to the report authors.

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The city's summer jobs program employs 10,000 teens and young adults a year, many of whom come from low-income, non-English-speaking, non-white homes. The Boston Fed study analyzed survey results from 800 of them before and after six weeks on the job last summer, and compared the results to 800 teens who did not take part in the program.

The share of participants with a resume and a cover letter increased significantly by the end of the summer, especially among minorities, outperforming those in the control group. The number of youth who set their sights on a four-year college instead of a two-year college or training program also shot up at a higher rate among participants. The group with the most dramatic improvement in higher education goals: African-American males.

The biggest difference in outcomes was in the area of community engagement. Summer job program participants were far more likely to report that they felt connected to their neighborhoods, could make a positive contribution to groups they belonged to, and felt safe in their neighborhoods.

Because the control group was more likely to be over age 16, white, and come from two-parent, English-speaking households, and therefore more likely to have job skills and higher educational goals, the results are conservative, said Alicia Sasser Modestino, the Northeastern University professor who coauthored the study with Trinh Nguyen, director of the Mayor's Office of Workforce Development for the City of Boston.

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Increasing employment opportunities is critical to the professional development and future success of today's youth, particularly those from lower-income, minority homes, Modestino said. Kids from middle- and upper-class homes who can't find a job will be fine, she said, because they can go to academic camps or do unpaid internships. It's the ones who may not think college is in their future who benefit the most from early work experience.

"Those are the kids that I worry about," she said. "There's a lot of inequality of opportunity out there that we need to be aware of."


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.