The Effect of Letters of Recommendation in the Youth Labor Market
Summer Youth Employment Programs (SYEPs) are city-run programs which provide youth with paid work during the summer. These programs have been shown to improve important youth outcomes including criminality, incarceration, and mortality. However, researchers have failed to find positive effects on future employment — a puzzling result given existing evidence that early labor market experience improves employment trajectories — or college going. We propose testing whether providing participants in New York City’s existing SYEP with personalized “letters of recommendation” (i.e. letters than can be shown to potential future employers or teachers) affects those youths’ subsequent employment and education outcomes. Specific and concrete positive information that someone is a productive and responsible employee could help future employers overcome any initial assumptions they might otherwise make about a youth based on his or her background. Evidence suggests that providing teachers with positive information about youth can significantly improve school performance. If the letters help youth leverage their summer experiences into better outcomes, they could be a very low-cost way to maximize the benefits of existing SYEPs. In addition, evidence that letters of recommendation affect employment and education outcomes would help elucidate why SYEPs have previously failed to improve these outcomes for youth.