Do Youth Employment Programs Work?


Adriana Lleras-Muney

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 10% of workers today are unemployed. This rate however is at least twice as high among those ages 15-25. This pattern is not unique to today. In fact, youth unemployment rates have always been much higher than unemployment rates for the rest of the population, at least since 1948 when official statistics started reporting unemployment rates. For this reason, many federal and local governments around the world have designed and implemented youth training programs to help unemployed young people. Although there is a great deal of variety in the design of these training programs the basic idea is to provide youth with work experience in the hope this experience will help them in the labor market.

A large literature has investigated whether these programs are effective. The consensus today, based on hundreds of studies, including randomized experiments, suggest that these programs have at beast modest effects on the employment and wages of participants. In fact, many question whether these gains justify the cost, and have called for the elimination of these programs today. For example, the largest youth training program in the US today is Job Corps, a federal program that spends 1.7 billion dollars annually, has been deemed a failure by critics. However, most job training program evaluations focus only on short- and medium-term outcomes. In fact, most evaluations have only followed participants for less than three years. Moreover, they have considered impacts on employment and earnings only.

In Do Youth Employment Programs Work? Evidence from the New Deal (NBER Working Paper 27103), Professor Adriana Lleras-Muney and her co-authors (Anna Aizer, Shari Eli and Keyoung Lee) study the lifetime effects of the first youth training program in the US implemented during the Great Depression, when youth unemployment rates were estimated to be around 60%. She shows that just under 10 months’ enrollment in the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) increased lifetime earnings for disadvantaged young men by an average of 4.6 percent, even though it had no measurable effect on short-run labor market activity. The CCC also improved long-term health and survival. CCC men who trained for one year lived almost one more year as a result.

Between 1933 and 1942, the CCC employed about 3 million men in 2,600 camps. Created to address high youth unemployment rates by providing “relief through work,” its laborers contributed to public works projects such as developing national parks, preserving forests, and construction of land irrigation systems. CCC enrollees were unemployed and unmarried men, who were American citizens aged 17 to 25 and in good health.

After completing six months of training in camps, CCC enrollees could reenlist for another three 6-month periods. Participants were paid $30 per month and were required to send $25 to a designated family member. Enrollees were posted in camps of about 200 people, where they received meals and medical treatment such as vaccinations. In addition, enrolled men could receive formal and informal schooling at the camps.

The data for the study were constructed using CCC administrative records in state archives of Colorado and New Mexico. The records include information on 28,343 men who enrolled in the CCC between 1937 and 1942, including dates of birth, family information, enrollment data, camp assignment, reason for separation from the program, and some physical data. The data were them merged to 1940 census records, WWII enlistment records, death certificates and Social Security Administration records.

For those who lived to age 45, an additional year of training increased the age at death by one year.  Life expectancy for this group was 73.6 years of life. Short-term employment results for the 4,000 men who participated in the CCC before 1940 and could be matched to the 1940 census showed that although training increased geographic mobility by about 15 percent, it had negligible effects on earnings or weeks worked. Individuals who trained for longer were not taller at the time of enlistment. But for the 5,500 men who could be matched to World War II enlistment records, a year of CCC training was associated with an additional inch in height, an indicator of better health.

Men who participate in the modern federal Job Corps (JC) program are similar to the CCC participants in age, duration of enrollment, and reasons for leaving the program.  Lleras-Muney and co-authors conclude that the lessons from the CCC may therefore carry over to current Job Corps participants.  Like CCC participants, JC participants obtained more education, reported being healthier and were more likely to move after their training. Thus, based on the CCC results, it is likely that JC participants will also live longer lives as a result of JC participation