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Review of the Roots of Youth Violence: Literature Reviews

Volume 5

Employment Strategies17


The relationship between unemployment and crime is a very complex one that has long been at the forefront of both criminological discussions and crime reduction strategies. Job training programs and other initiatives designed to increase employment opportunities are often created in the hope of breaking the crime cycle that has been found to exist in the world of the unemployed adult. With the concern over the prevalence of youth crime and violence in recent years, especially within Ontario, such programs are being offered to disadvantaged and offending youth in an attempt to set them on the path towards productive and law-abiding lives. However, youths differ from adults in terms of needs, circumstances and life-stage, and therefore, workforce participation generally occupies a different role in their lives. While it seems likely that job training and employment opportunity initiatives aimed at youth can have beneficial results, effective public policy must rest on a comprehensive understanding of the employment-crime relationship that is youth-specific. In particular, there is a need to determine when and why employment benefits youth (or alternatively, when and why it does not), as well as how these benefits can and have been best derived from employment programs. This paper reviews the literature pertaining to youth employment and crime, with an emphasis on specific youth employment program evaluations. It is guided by an understanding of the need to determine the effectiveness of such programs in reducing youth crime in the hope of informing policy-makers as to the potential for these programs to form part of an effective crime prevention or reduction strategy. However, it should be noted that, for marginalized youth, obtaining and holding a job may have other concrete benefits including building self-confidence, personal responsibility and punctuality, communication skills and establishing a work history.

Youth Employment: Does It Help?

A number of theoretical perspectives offer tentative explanations for the relationship between youth employment and crime. Anomie theory, for example, holds that individuals adopt criminal or delinquent behaviour when they lack legitimate means to achieve socially desirable goals, such as wealth and power (Merton, 1938). To the extent then that unemployment acts as a barrier to an adolescent’s goals, a positive correlation with crime is expected. Economic choice theory explains crime in terms of its economic appeal over legal behaviour (Ehrlich, 1973). According to this perspective, youth will be more likely to engage in illegal activity when they expect it to be more economically rewarding than legitimate avenues such as employment. This theory, however, may be more helpful in explaining income-generating crimes than in explaining violence (Bushway and Reuter, 2002). Social control theory emphasizes the ability of employment to decrease delinquency through strengthening pro-social bonds and fostering a stake in conventional institutions (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990 Social learning theories would emphasize the values and norms being learned in the work environment. One branch of the social learning perspective, differential association theory, posits that having delinquent friends increases the likelihood that an individual will also exhibit delinquent behaviour (Sutherland and Cressey, 1978). According to this theory, the effect of employment on youth crime will depend on the extent to which employment promotes or inhibits delinquent peer associations. Finally, life-course theory holds that the causes of crime vary over the life cycle (Sampson and Laub, 1993), and thus the extent to which unemployment is a criminogenic factor will depend on the life stage of the individual. These theoretical perspectives, rather than offering a clear picture of the relationship between youth employment and crime, highlight the complexity of this relationship. They suggest that the effect of youth employment on crime is contingent on a variety of factors, including the circumstances of the youth and the context of employment.

Empirical evidence as to the impact of employment on youth is as divided as the differing theoretical perspectives would suggest. The findings are perhaps best summarized by the statement that “the effect of work on crime could be positive, negative, or even substantively unimportant” (Brame et al., 2004: 252).

The literature suggesting a positive correlation between youth employment and delinquency fails to provide evidence of a clear causal link. Many researchers caution that the supposed link is a result of unaccounted-for individual characteristics that affect both the likelihood of employment and deviant behaviour (Gottfredson and Hirshi, 1990; Paternoster et al., 2003; Apel, 2004; Brame et al., 2004). Using data from the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, with a sample of 4,168 youth between the ages of 15 and 18, Brame et al. (2004) found that the positive empirical association between youth employment and criminal activity was highly sensitive to the assumptions made about unobserved sources of criminal propensity. Employment was found to reduce the risk of criminal behaviour under some sets of assumptions, but not others. It is also important to note that many of the studies that suggest youth employment can have negative impacts on youth are based on high school students and viewed in light of beliefs that uphold the value of the traditional educational system. Such studies do not necessarily speak out against employment initiatives for more disadvantaged youth, such as high school dropouts or court-involved youth who are unlikely to return to school. Most studies highlight the need for further research into the youth employment and crime relationship.

What Types of Work Benefit Youth?

If job training programs and employment opportunity initiatives are to serve as viable strategies for deterring youth crime, they must be created with an understanding of the job characteristics and employment types that are more likely to benefit youth. As with the work-crime relationship more generally, answers are not to be found with reference to what works for adults. In their longitudinal study of 1,000 high school students in St. Paul, Minnesota, Staff and Uggen (2003) found that the “ideal adolescent job” is one that has age-appropriate benefits, mainly supporting the importance of school and providing an opportunity to learn new and useful things. Youth with these types of jobs (examples included office clerks and museum ushers) had the lowest levels of school deviance, alcohol use and arrest.

Another U.S. study, based on data from the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey, distinguished between formal work and informal work (Apel et al., 2006). The researchers defined formal work as having a lasting agreement with one employer, whereas informal work was freelance work or self-employment in which the youth was not employed by a single person for an extended period of time (i.e., babysitting, paper route, etc.). Findings indicated that in comparison with non-workers, formal workers engaged in more delinquency and substance use, while informal workers engaged in more delinquency but less substance use. However, while a transition from not working to a formal job during the school year was not found to increase delinquency or substance use, a switch from not working to an informal job did. While the study did not allow the researchers to determine the reasons for this difference, Apel et al. (2006) suggest that it may be a result of the reduced adult supervision and less opportunity to develop useful skills or human capital that characterizes informal work.

Research by Allan and Steffensmeier (1989) indicated that quality of employment may be more important for young adults (aged 18 to 24) than for juveniles (aged 14 to 17). Using data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports from 1977 to 1980, the researchers found that the availability of full-time employment (regardless of quality) was associated with low arrest rates among juveniles, but for young adults, low quality employment (defined as jobs characterized by low wages, few hours and discouraged workers) was associated with high arrest rates. Williams et al. (1996), however, caution against leading juveniles into temporary jobs that require few skills, especially when these jobs act as an alternative to school rather than as a complement. The researchers argue that these types of jobs often lock youth into a future of employment that is neither meaningful nor productive, and are therefore unlikely to deter future criminal behaviour.

While the effects of job type and quality on crime may not be the same for youths and adults, it is nevertheless undeniable that the youths being examined will eventually become part of the adult population. For this reason, it is important to also note that for young adults, “secondary sector” jobs, which require less skill and are often characterized by instability, have been linked to higher crime rates (Crutchfield and Pitchford, 1997), while jobs that are subjectively rewarding and that offer benefits have been found to reduce criminal behaviour (Wadsworth, 2006).

A Canadian study involving interviews of 200 male street youth, aged 24 and younger, from Edmonton, Alberta, also provides evidence that the availability of low-level jobs is not sufficient to deter youth offending. In this study, Baron (2001) found that, despite low educational attainment, many of the street youths had extensive job experience, with an average of seven jobs over their lifetimes. These jobs, however, generally required few skills and provided low wages, such as dishwashing, janitorial services and general labour. Baron (2001) found that a history in the marginal labour market led many of the youths to eventually reject the low-skill and low-wage jobs available to them in favour of more profitable criminal endeavours. While many of the youths indicated that they could find employment if they wanted to, they also expressed disdain for “working for five bucks an hour” or “flipping burgers.” Instead, the youths were able to rationalize their criminal behaviour, finding support amongst other like-minded street youth and further isolating themselves from conventional society.

Youth Employment and Job Training Strategies

Strategies to successfully integrate youth into the workforce generally take one of two approaches. The first is a school-based approach, which emphasizes the importance of the traditional education system in preparing youths to become employable and self-sufficient members of society. This preventative approach involves trying to keep youth in school and facilitating a smooth school-to-work transition through career programs and increasing academic achievement. The second emphasizes imparting skills and opportunities to enter the workforce to disadvantaged youth, who have often been failed by the traditional educational system. This remedial or rehabilitative strategy would involve programs such as those aimed at helping at-risk youths find jobs through job search training, help with resume writing and occupational counselling, as well as programs that provide job training and/or temporary work experience. Wage subsidy programs may also be used, whereby employers are paid to hire certain disadvantaged youths. Canada has generally emphasized the former, school-based approach to youth employment, rather than focusing on the severely disadvantaged. The United States, in comparison, has put more emphasis on targeting disadvantaged youth, such as high school dropouts and youth offenders (HRDC, 1997). To determine the effectiveness of employment-related programs directed at youth with the aim of discovering which ones work best and why, it is necessary to examine the differential impacts of different types of programs.

How Should Programs Be Evaluated?

Considering the different approaches to helping youth succeed in the workforce, there is some question as to the basis on which these programs should be evaluated. It is important to keep in mind that the outcomes of program evaluations are contingent upon the assumptions made about the causes of youth crime. Bushway and Reuter (2002), for example, note that most evaluations judge program effectiveness according to employment effects rather than changes in criminal behaviour: “Crime control is a secondary effect which may result from increased employment, the primary objective” (214). While part of a program’s success will necessarily rely on its ability to actually help youths find jobs, the literature on the youth employment and crime relationship would warn against the assumption that a program that is effective in supplying youths with jobs will necessarily have any positive effect in terms of reducing crime. This is reinforced by evaluations that show that an increase in youth employment rates did not correspond with reduced crime (i.e., Roos, 2006).

A more inclusive approach to program evaluation becomes necessary. A number of studies, for example, examine the effects of job training on school achievement. Consistent with a preventative approach, these evaluations are based on evidence that youth who do not finish high school or obtain a GED are generally less successful in the working world (Miller and Porter, 2005) and are therefore more likely to engage in criminal behaviour as adults. Other evaluations focus on the ability of these programs to reduce risky behaviour that has been linked to youth crime, such as alcohol and substance use, or to aggression more generally. These, too, are informative. Finally, evaluations that directly relate the impact of these programs to youth crime may offer the clearest indicator of the effectiveness of these programs. These evaluations, however, are often based on official crime and recidivism rates, and do not necessarily reflect youth crime more generally. The following sections are guided by the belief that a variety of factors need to be taken into consideration in determining the success of these programs as youth crime prevention strategies.

Evaluations by Program Type

In their review of U.S. evaluative studies pertaining to employment and crime, Bushway and Reuter (2002) separate youth employment programs into three broad categories: 1) summer work placement programs and subsidized employment; 2) short term training (approximately six months) followed by job placement for youth who are not in school; and 3) longer-term programs with extensive training and education, a residential component, and job placement. After reviewing the literature, Bushway and Reuter (2002) concluded that evidence existed to indicate that only the latter type of intensive program is effective in reducing crime. A more in-depth look at specific program evaluations, identifying targeted youth, goals, results, and possible explanations, will yield a better understanding of the potential for youth employment programs to reduce crime.

Short-Term Initiatives for Youth Offenders

Evaluative studies reveal that low-intensity initiatives aimed at youths who have already been in contact with the youth justice system may have little effect on reducing recidivism.

For example, Uggen (2000) examined the impact of the National Supported Work Demonstration Project, Roos (2006) examined the effects of the Texas Re-Integration of Offenders-Youth (Project RIO-Y) and several research projects ((Leiber and Mawhorr, 1995), (Bushway and Reuter, 2002), (Bullis and Yovanoff, 2006)) evaluated different aspects of the Second Chance Program, offered by Juvenile Court Services in conjunction with the U.S. federal job training program (JTPA). All concluded that short term job training programs have virtually no positive effect on the future prospects of young offenders.

It is worth noting, however, that not all studies of short-term programs aimed at youth offenders have yielded such bleak results. Gates (1998) compared results from three different program options for at-risk youth. The first group consisted of 12-to 18-year-old males and females who were on parole for committing a felony. They were selected from the Ohio Department of Youth Services (DYS). The second group consisted of DYS clients who participated in the Job Training and Education Program (JTEP). This program offered education, employment skills training (including subsidized work experience) and self-development opportunities. The third group was drawn from 16-to 18-year-old Dayton Public School students who participated in the New Options for Work program (NOW). This program was aimed at students with less than eight credits and provided them the opportunity to attain their GED while receiving vocational training. The researcher found that the NOW group had the highest GED achievement rate (54 per cent), compared with the JTEP group (34 per cent) and the DYS group (only eight per cent). The JTEP group had the highest percentage of youth who acquired employment in the private sector (63 per cent), compared with NOW participants (40 per cent) and the DYS group (14 per cent). Finally the study revealed that the JTEP group had the lowest recidivism rate, with only five per cent, in comparison with the DYS group recidivism rate of 20 per cent. The researcher concludes those programs such as JTEP and NOW are helpful in providing hope and opportunities for students who have been failed by the traditional educational system. The researcher argues that a model program is one that works to further education and basic skills as well as the employability and job skills of youth.

One of the major obstacles of programs aimed at juvenile offenders seems to be that these youth often suffer from a host of other problems. These include, but are not limited to, an unstable family environment, poor school achievement, negative peer groups, drug and alcohol problems, behavioural disorders, poor social skills, and mental health issues (Home Builders Inst., 2000: 14). In other words, programs must be of sufficient length and include supports that address a broad range of issues if they are to effect a lasting change in offending youth.

Short-Term Initiatives for Other At-Risk Youth

Another group of job training and employment programs is directed at other at-risk youths, such as high school dropouts, low academic achievers, and ethnic minorities from poor neighbourhoods (although many of these programs also include prior offenders). One study revealed a positive impact on school-related deviance for participants in a school and community-based program that matched Grade 8 students from three Florida schools with mentors in an employment setting based on career interests (Rollin, 2003). Targeted students were those with academic or disciplinary problems, and the study was based on a sample of 78 program participants and 78 students making up a control group. The program took place over the school year, for approximately two hours, four days a week. Using pre-and post-test measurements, Rollin (2003) found that participation in the program significantly reduced the total number of in-school suspensions, total days of out-of-school suspensions, and the number of infractions committed on school property. This study, however, was limited by its small sample size.

Another study evaluated the impact of the BreakAway Company, a Canadian career readiness program aimed at special needs high school students and young offenders. Participants were between the ages of 12 and 17 and were drawn from high schools and open-custody residences. This was a 12-week program that involved a mock workplace in which the participants became “employees.” They engaged in product planning, attended staff meetings, and received a small weekly pay. Participants also explored career options through discussion, job shadowing and short-term job placements. This program differed from many other programs that have been evaluated in that it emphasized a cognitive-behavioural model. The focus was on developing cognitive problem-solving strategies and goal-oriented behaviours that could be applied to other settings. Evaluation of this program, however, was severely limited. It was based on only 34 males and four females and did not involve a comparison with a control group. The study also revealed different outcomes according to the measurement type. While self-report measures revealed no impact on self-control or goal-oriented behaviour, reports by teachers and trained judges indicated a positive impact. There was also convincing evidence from participant interviews, most of which provided anecdotal accounts of how the students were able to apply the learning and problem-solving strategies they had been taught to other settings (Campbell, 1992).

The JOBSTART Demonstration was another program aimed at increasing the employment outcomes of disadvantaged high school dropouts between 17 and 21 years of age. The program was implemented between 1985 and 1988 at 13 different sites. The four main components of the program were: 1) basic education; 2) occupational skills training; 3) support services (such as transportation services, childcare, and counselling); and 4) job placement assistance. The average length of participation was 6.8 months and the average time spent on program activities was 400 hours, although participation varied greatly within the sample. The final evaluation of this program, based on a 48-month follow-up of 1,941 youths from the experimental and control groups, yielded mixed results (Cave et al., 1993). Program participation was associated with a significant increase in high school completion or attainment of a GED certificate (42 per cent versus 28.6 per cent for the control group). The study did not, however, reveal a positive impact on long-term employment outcomes. At the four-year follow-up, employment rates were similar for program participants and non-participants and the difference in earnings between the two groups was not statistically significant. Results for some subgroups, however, were more positive, although it is important to keep in mind that they are also based on smaller samples. In contrast to other studies that reveal little program impact on prior offenders, males who were arrested between age 16 and program entry were slightly more likely to benefit from JOBSTART participation. These males had greater earnings over the four-year period, were slightly less likely to be arrested, and were significantly less likely to use drugs. Also, for youths who had dropped out of school because they disliked school or had poor grades (rather than for employment reasons), program participation was associated with higher earnings in the third and fourth follow-up years.

One JOBSTART site, the Center for Employment Training (CET) in San Jose, California, was also found to be significantly more effective than other sites, especially with respect to participants’ earnings. The nature of the study did not allow for a determination of the reasons for this, although Cave et al., (1993) emphasize the importance of employer involvement in linking youth job training to the needs of the local labour market. After the success of CET, the Department of Labor funded a larger study, the Evaluation of the Center for Employment Training Replication Sites, to determine whether the CET model could be replicated in other settings to produce similarly positive results. Between 1995 and 1999, over 1,400 youth, aged 16 to 21, were randomly assigned to the CET program group or to a control group. Unfortunately, the final report for this project indicated less positive results for the replication sites than for the original CET program under the JOBSTART Demonstration (Miller et al., 2005). The increased hours of training and receipt of credentials by program participants had no overall impact on employment or earnings after the four-and-a-half-year follow-up. The study indicated that implementation of the CET model was difficult and that only four of the 12 replication sites adhered closely to the model. Problems amongst the lower-fidelity sites included a turnover in leadership, poor funding, and low levels of participation. Miller et al. (2005) found that the replication sites had the most problems implementing the job development component because of a lack of the established relationships with local employers from which the original site had benefited. It was therefore more difficult to provide program participants with employment opportunities after training, and the authors note the importance of continually assessing the employer focus and researching local market needs.

The Quantum Opportunity Program (QOP) is another example of an employment initiative that failed to live up to the standards set by previous program results. The QOP targeted at-risk youth and was operated by the U.S. Department of Labor in conjunction with the Ford Foundation between July 1995 and September 2001. After promising results from a smaller-sample pilot study that took place between 1989 and 1994, the larger QOP project was launched, which randomly assigned 1,100 youth to either the program or non-program group. This was an after-school program for academic low-achievers from schools with high dropout rates. The program was longer in duration than many other programs, consisting of only one cohort of participants over the time period. The sample was made up of mostly Black or Hispanic youth from urban neighbourhoods. The program was based on an intensive model of 1) individual case management (with an emphasis on mentoring); 2) education; 3) community service activities; and 4) developmental activities, such as employment-readiness skills training. The program ran year-round and included opportunities for summer school and a summer job placement. After the fourth and final follow-up interview (which took place when participants were between 23 and 25 years of age), Schirm et al. (2006) found that the program failed to achieve most of its goals. It did not increase the likelihood of either high school graduation or post-secondary education/training in the long run, nor did it impact employment-related outcomes. The program also did not reduce substance abuse or crime when participants were in their teens, and program participation was actually associated with a greater likelihood of involvement with the criminal justice system when participants were in their early twenties. This study is particularly useful in revealing many of the problems associated with implementing a more intensive employment program. The researchers found that the case managers often could not dedicate the time that was required for effective mentorship, and the education and support services often did not meet the needs of participants. Additionally, program participants spent an average of only 24 per cent of the targeted 750 hours per year on program activities.

Job Corps

One program, the U.S. Job Corps, which has been found to be particularly effective, deserves considerable attention. This program has been hailed as the “poster child” of employment programs (Bushway and Reuter, 2002) and was deemed “the only large-scale program that has produced sustained, significant earnings gains for disadvantaged youths” to date (Burghardt et al., 2001). Job Corps is the largest, longest running, most expensive, and most extensively evaluated job training program in the U.S. Founded in 1964, the program serves over 60,000 participants between the ages of 16 and 24 each year, at a cost of $16,500 per participant. The program is aimed at disadvantaged youths (including high school dropouts, ethnic/racial minorities, and those with prior criminal histories) and the goal is “to help youths become more responsible, employable, and productive citizens” (Burghardt et al., 2001: 3). Job Corps services are delivered in three stages. The first is outreach and admissions, whereby counsellors from local and state agencies recruit eligible participants. The second stage is centre operations and includes a variety of services that are individualized to each student. Services include academic education, training in more than 75 different vocational areas, unpaid work experience opportunities, counselling, social skills training, and health education. The vocational training component was designed with the help of business and labour organizations to determine what skills were necessary for success. The final stage of the Job Corps program is placement assistance to help students find jobs in the community.

One of the most distinctive characteristics of Job Corps is the large residential component, designed to provide a structured environment that supports the training that is provided. While it is not mandatory that participants live at the centres, approximately 88 per cent do. This is not a time-limited program and, although the length of stay varies among participants, the average length of participation is about eight months.

Recognizing the need for evaluation of program effectiveness, the U.S. Department of Labor sponsored the National Job Corps Study. This study involved a random sample of all eligible applicants to the program between late 1994 and 1995, with a total sample of 11,313 youth. All eligible applicants were randomly assigned to either the program group, who were able to enroll in Job Corps, or to the control group, who were not able to enroll in Job Corps but could make use of any other job training program available to them. Interviews were conducted shortly after assignment, as well as after 12, 30, and 48 months of assignment.

The results of the National Job Corps Study evaluation (Burghardt et al., 2001) are largely positive. In terms of training and education, Job Corps participants spent about five hours more per week in education or training than non-participants did, and program participation was associated with an improvement in functional literacy. Participants were also more likely to receive a GED than the control group was (42 per cent versus 27 per cent) and to receive a vocational certificate (38 per cent versus 15 per cent). However, participants were slightly less likely to complete their high school degree (five per cent versus eight per cent for non-participants) and the program had little effect on college attendance.

In terms of employment effects, the 48-month follow-up revealed that Job Corps participants had a 12 per cent earning gain over the control group and that these positive effects were likely to persist. Earning gains, however, were concentrated amongst those participants who either completed a vocational program or earned a GED. Also, for unknown reasons, the program failed to increase employment and earnings of Hispanic youth and youths between the ages of 18 and 19.

Most importantly, however, participation in Job Corps significantly reduced the likelihood of re-arrest. Within the 48-month follow-up, 29 per cent of participants were arrested, in comparison with 33 per cent of non-participants (a significant difference considering the sample size). However, the biggest difference was found in the first year, when many participants were still living in the residence, and the program had no impact on arrest rates of male non-residents. The program also had no impact on drug and alcohol use.

The success of Job Corps can be attributed to the uniform and proper implementation across sites of an intensive program model that was both individualized and self-paced. It is also suggested that the program was successful because participation rates were high and the structured environment allowed for the many barriers that participants faced to be addressed. Despite the high costs associated with the program, Job Corps was found to be a cost-effective strategy for reducing youth crime (Burghardt et al., 2001).

What Does This Tell Us About Youth Employment Programs?

The literature on youth employment generally reveals that job training and employment opportunities do not offer an easy solution to the problem of youth crime, although, as noted earlier, they may serve other positive purposes. Many program initiatives have failed to achieve their desired goals, especially with respect to long-term effects on both crime and employment-related outcomes, and even successful program models have been found difficult to replicate across different sites. This, however, should not discourage policy-makers from future efforts to use employment programs as a tool in reducing youth crime. Some programs have been implemented with positive results, and the need to aid youths in becoming law-abiding, productive and employed young adults is undeniable. The successes and failures of prior youth employment initiatives should therefore be used to guide future programs.

Perhaps the clearest point to be drawn from the literature is that initiatives to reduce youth crime must be comprehensive, taking into consideration the individual and various needs of targeted youths. For employment programs, this suggests that a focus on employment-related outcomes should be balanced with the development of other important life-skills and helping youths to overcome any other barriers to success they may face. If employment programs that target disadvantaged, “at-risk,” or offending youth hope to have an impact on crime, the programs must be designed with an awareness that many of the youths may suffer from social and behavioural problems that cannot be overcome by focusing on employment outcomes alone. Other supports, such as counselling and drug abuse treatment, will often be needed to effect a lasting change. The notion of “quick fixes” to the problem of youth crime can be easily dispensed with, and long-term, intensive programs that offer a variety of employment-related services in conjunction with other support services have a greater likelihood of success.

Employment programs for youth also must be designed with an awareness of the age-graded effects of working. Employment affects youths differently from the way it affects adults, and therefore employment initiatives directed at youth must differ from those directed at adults. This is supported by the divided nature of the literature as to whether employment is helpful or harmful to youth and under what circumstances. It is clear, however, that adolescence is a time of transition and development, and youth programs must address the psychological, emotional, and social development needs of youths (Smith and Gambone, 1992). Youths cannot realistically be expected to succeed in the adult world of working if, despite sufficient job skills training, they lack social maturity. In a sense, youths must be treated as youths, preparing to enter the adult world of working, rather than as adults. Employment programs must attempt to provide youths with jobs that are age-appropriate and provide opportunities for learning and growth. There exists a clear link between youths who succeed in school and workforce success (and thus a decreased likelihood to engage in adult offending), and therefore employment programs should reinforce the importance of educational attainment where possible. However, the traditional educational system does not work for all youths and some will inevitably drop out or find themselves within the youth justice correctional setting. These youths will find it particularly difficult to succeed in the labour market, and simply providing them with opportunities to work in low-skill, low-wage jobs will likely not be enough to steer them away from potentially more rewarding criminal lifestyles. Instead, these youths must be provided with meaningful work that offers them hope for the future. The question of how this can best be achieved, however, is one that we are still in the process of answering.

The literature does suggest that one important factor in employment program success is a strong link to the local labour market. An understanding of local market and employer needs is vital in preparing youths for successful entry into the workforce. Clearly, even the most extensive job skills training will offer few benefits if there is little demand for those skills. Strong community ties and input from local employers help to ensure that youths are trained to occupational standards in demanded fields, and can also facilitate the job search process (Home Builders, 2000).

While the failure of program evaluations to provide a clear picture of employment-related crime reduction strategies underscores a need for further research, policy-makers seem to have taken the opposite route. A review of the literature reveals a lack of large-scale empirical program evaluations in recent years. Some researchers, however, suggest that a newer generation of initiatives, which differ in many ways from previously evaluated programs, provide some hope that these policies can be effective. The Sar Levitan Center for Social Policy Studies at Johns Hopkins University provides a list of principles of “what works” in relation to these programs:

While support is found within program evaluations for some of these principles, others, such as contact with caring adults, positive peer support, and community service have been largely ignored in large-scale evaluations of youth employment programs. These “Levitan Principles” were subsequently incorporated into the U.S. Workforce Investment Act, and policy-makers would benefit from empirical evaluations of the actual effects of these principles. The YouthBuild programs, which operate all across the United States, for example, are cited as the types of effective programs that adhere to these principles. YouthBuild programs provide carpentry-and construction-related skills to youths aged 16 to 24 and involve them in building affordable housing in the community while they attend an alternative high school. The programs aim to provide a supportive “mini-community” that promotes positive peer relations and close and supportive relationships with caring adults, and works to develop leadership skills in the youths. Engaging youths in building houses within their community is meant to be a rehabilitative strategy that both changes the relationship between the youth and his or her community and provides an opportunity for “meaningful” work (Pines 1999). A program overview of the Minnesota YouthBuild in 1999 found that within the five-year follow-up period, only five per cent of program participants with prior criminal records reoffended (Minnesota, 2000). The YouthBuild program evaluations (and others like it), however, are not rigorous; there are no control groups with which to compare results and data collection is generally supplied by program providers and of varying quality. While such programs provide hope, they do not, without proper evaluation, provide proof of effectiveness. Therefore, rather than a formula for “what works,” some of these principles may be better regarded as points for further research.

The need for further research into youth employment programs is clear, especially within Canada. The lack of Canadian literature that could be found regarding the employment and crime relationship that is youth-specific is surprising. While other studies, such as those from the United States, can be informative, there is always a risk that such findings do not generalize to Canadian youth. Policy-makers would no doubt benefit from Canadian-based evaluative studies. While such employment initiatives are intended to create opportunities for disadvantaged youth, they are also intended to achieve the goal of effecting a real and positive change. What has been learned so far about the effects of youth employment programs on youth crime is a result of empirical research and evaluation. While these studies have been informative, the inconsistent results of these evaluations reveal that there is still much to be learned with respect to implementing effective employment programs for youth. It is only with more evaluation, not less, that we can hope to learn from past mistakes rather than repeat them.


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17 This chapter was written with the assistance of Stephanie Roberts, BA, undergraduate program in criminology, University of Toronto.


Volume 1. Findings, Analysis and Conclusions

Volume 2. Executive Summary

Volume 3. Community Perspectives Report

Volume 4. Research Papers

Volume 5. Literature Reviews