Meeting Youth Where They’re At: A User-Centered Approach to Boston’s Summer Jobs Program

Meeting Youth Where They’re At: A User-Centered Approach to Boston’s Summer Jobs Program

In 2015, a team of government data and technology experts from MAPC and the City of Boston formed the Boston branch of the Civic Tech Data Collaborative (CTDC) to tackle the design of a more accessible youth employment system. After two years of cross-sector collaboration, the project is coming to a close with the release of an open source Youth Jobs Platform that has already had measurable impact on Boston’s youth employment experience. Here, a member of the CTDC team reflects on the process and lessons learned.

Why Summer Jobs Matter in the Long-Run

Summer jobs provide a host of immediate benefits to youth: financial management skills, real-world work experience, exposure to positive role models, and resume- and network-building for future employment opportunities. Researchers have also found a positive correlation between having a summer job and achieving much longer-term success outcomes: reduced incarceration rates and higher educational achievement. In many cases, summer jobs are a young persons’ first introduction to the workforce.

But summer employment has been declining for teens (ages 16–19) across the country, which is raising concerns about decreasing pathways to employment for Black and Latino youth living in places with few existing employment opportunities.

Youth in Boston have organized around increasing access to the jobs that are available. Last February, over 900 youth convened a rally to increase job opportunities and decrease juvenile incarceration, organized by the Youth Jobs Coalition, an alliance of 40 youth community groups from across the state.

In response to these issues, the City of Boston, like many municipalities across the U.S has refocused energy around its Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP). The City first began funding summer jobs back in 1990, and today employs nearly 10,000 youth across the city through non-profit, public sector and private industry partners.

Despite being recognized as a national leader for its summer jobs program, the City’s Division of Youth Engagement and Employment (DYEE)—responsible for making about one-third of those placements—has struggled for years with staff capacity to tackle the enormous job. For example, the Department was conducting direct outreach to thousands of applicants each summer (5,000 teens in 2017). At 15 minutes per phone call, outreach staff spent months tracking down young people to offer them a chance at summer employment.

The collaborative felt uniquely positioned to bring a technology solution to bear on this challenge, while at the same time putting the needs of young people at the center in a way that the City had not been able to do before.

Engaging Youth in Designing the Experience, End to End

By involving users (youth) at every step of the research and design phase, and through conducting expert interviews and group brainstorms, the team revealed critical pain points in the experience of finding, applying for and starting a summer job through the DYEE’s program, called SuccessLink.

In this way, we learned that access to a transit pass, the amount of time it took to travel to the job, and how closely the job matched their own interests or passions were all important factors for teens weighing a summer job offer. But up until then, staff had limited access to information about youth and the job application didn’t inquire about preferences or access to transit. They had no way to systematically take these factors into consideration in the match process.

The collaborative worked with the City to redevelop the application form to include these additional fields. With better data about the needs of youth applicants, staff now had the ability to make higher-quality matches by utilizing an algorithm that weights travel time and level of job interest. (For more details on the development of this algorithm, see the full-length piece on Embedding youth feedback into the algorithmic design greatly improved the quality of the offers made to young people and created an automated, data-driven hiring process.

Lastly, the collaborative wanted to ensure that the user experience teens went through was painless and enjoyable, which began with how we communicated. Through the City’s pilot, we quickly learned that youth don’t typically use email during summer months, which aligned with a recent Pew report that text messaging is by far the most frequent method of communication among teens. In response, we pivoted toward a hybrid strategy of sending job offers to youth in text and emails. This simple change resulted in an extraordinary acceptance rate increase without human intervention.

Outcomes and Lessons

After two years of development and iteration, the CTDC team measured results before and after the civic technology intervention. The group found the Youth Job Platform successfully employed more teens and placed them more effectively into summer jobs. Designed with youth for youth, the project revealed some incredible outcomes:

  • Increased City Staff Capacity: In 2017, over 3,000 job offers were made through email and text, saving City staff approximately 95 days or 19 work weeks. City of Boston outreach staff now had more time to spend on other activities to expand the employment funnel or think creatively about reaching youth they aren’t currently reaching.
  • Higher response and completion rates: In past years, there had been a drop-off problem: youth either didn’t receive the message that they had a job offer, or they may have accepted a job offer but did not make it through the full onboarding process. With this method, 58% of those offered a job also responded to the offer and 75% of those who accepted an offer digitally also completed onboarding. More intentional matches led to 20% more youth completing the hiring process than the previous year, despite lower overall application numbers.

We also came away with some interesting lessons from the process:

  • Agile technology development led to agile public policy development. As the team translated policy decisions into code and began to measure data that hadn’t been collected before, DYEE had an unexpected opportunity to refine and improve on existing policies. Through an iterative technology development process, we were able to test and measure the impact of decisions before they were rolled out to the general population, providing a safe environment to ensure employment policies were equitable and an equal chance at a job was given to every young person in Boston.
  • Focusing on users led to the creation of new data sets. In soliciting information from applicants about transit needs, interests and more, the City now had access to rich new data about who they were reaching with the program. This data is stored in a way that’s easily retrievable by City staff conducting outreach. What’s more, after the new application was rolled out in the summer of 2016, an official data sharing agreement enabled relevant information to be made available to researchers at Northeastern University who will help the City of Boston fully understand long-term benefits of their program and potentially participate in a Pay for Success program in future years.

Want to Build on or Re-Use this technology in your city?

Visit the Metropolitan Area Planning Council’s Github repository And visit for more information.

This post originally appeared on on March 29 as “Meeting Youth Where They’re At”.

The Youth Jobs Platform was built through a partnership between the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC, Boston’s Regional Planning Agency), the City of Boston Division of Youth Engagement and Employment (DYEE) and Department Innovation & Technology (DoIT), local volunteer-based civic technologists (Code for Boston), the Boston Foundation, and faculty researchers at MIT.

The Civic Tech and Data Collaborative (CTDC) is a joint initiative of Living Cities, Code for America and the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Locally in Boston, this project was generously supported by BNY Mellon.


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