In early March, East Hartford Works! — the city’s workforce training arm — put out a call for applications to its summer youth internship program.
Over the next several weeks, as the program’s two-person staff coordinated with local businesses, public sector employers and nonprofits to arrange summer job opportunities, applications poured in from nearly 500 students and young adults in the East Hartford area. Then they had to evaluate the applicants.
“Tons of work for six months goes into putting these programs together,” said Amy Peltier, director of East Hartford Works!.
All the while, Peltier — along with other directors at CT Youth Employment Program sites all over the state — wasn’t entirely sure how much state funding would be allocated to the program in the biennial budget. Lawmakers were hammering out the line-item details up until the last days of the 2023 legislative session in early June.
The final deal included about $5 million to support the programs statewide in each of the next two fiscal years — half the amount many had expected.
For Peltier that meant she’d have to tell several East Hartford employers they wouldn’t be getting the interns they’d expected. And it meant turning away more applicants than she’d hoped to.
East Hartford Works! will be able to support 55 internships this summer, providing career readiness orientation and professional skills training to students and paying a stipend roughly equal to minimum wage.
“When the funding doesn’t come through, you figure out where to cut,” Peltier said. “Either you cut young people, you cut employers, you cut both, and it just affects everybody.”
Every year, state-funded initiatives endure the uncertainty of planning months’ worth of programming without knowing whether they’ll be able to support it. For those that kick off at the start of the fiscal year, like summer internships, that timing is particularly challenging.
The $5 million allocated to the CT Youth Employment Program for fiscal year 2024 was level with what the program received in 2023. But internship program coordinators say they had good reasons to expect this year’s budget would go up.
Gov. Ned Lamont had proposed over $15 million in 2024 for the program, included in the budget he released in early February. Lamont emphasized workforce training in his speech at the time, and the budget documents called out the $10 million boost to the program, saying, “Access to educational opportunities is only one element of providing opportunities for growth, focusing on workforce development to expand employment is another key pillar.”
The governor’s budget is considered a starting point for the legislature’s Appropriations Committee, which worked in the subsequent months to draft a budget of its own that took the governor’s priorities into consideration. In the first draft of that budget, released in mid-April, lawmakers spread the governor’s proposed raise over two years — resulting in an allocation of roughly $10 million in 2024 and $10 million in 2025 to the youth employment program.
By then, internship applications were rolling into programs across the state.
“We have a really long runway,” said Shannon Marimón, executive director of ReadyCT, an organization that prepares students for careers. “We’re committing to get you into an internship, we’re going to prepare you for that internship, and then we are going to match you with one that fits with your goals and your aspirations and also match you with an employer. We do all that usually by May,” she said.
If ReadyCT doesn’t get the state funding it expected, as was the case this year, Marimón said she has to tap money intended for the following year’s programming.
“We’re kind of borrowing against the future to make sure we can cover the cost,” she said.
On May 24, Lamont held a press conference at one of the internship-sponsoring organizations, Ebony Horsewomen Equestrian and Therapeutic Center in Hartford, encouraging students to sign up for the youth employment program. According to a recent report, the 2022 summer youth employment program served only half as many students as it had a decade prior.
“The Youth Employment Program is a strong workforce development initiative at a time when Connecticut employers need more workers,” Lamont said in a statement. “With more than 100,000 jobs currently available in Connecticut, it’s the right time to make this investment in our future workforce and for the state’s business community.”
Less than two weeks later, the $10 million investment he’d proposed was stricken from the budget.
Sen. Cathy Osten, a Sprague Democrat and co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, said both she and co-chair Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, are “huge proponents of summer youth employment, and we always like to see Summer Youth Employment funded at a level that will provide for the most children.”
But, she added, “No nonprofit or workforce board should ever make plans until we finish the budget process and it’s voted on by the legislature and signed by the governor.” In the negotiations that followed the committee’s release of its proposed budget, the increase proposed for the CT Youth Employment Program was one of the items that “just didn’t stay in,” she said.
“We’ve encouraged people since time infinity to pay attention to the budget process and wait before you say you’re going to spend money until you actually have the resources there,” Osten said. (Earlier in the session, Osten had warned constituents in a piece in The Day of New London, “We’ve about reached the point where it’s time to disappoint.”)
A spokesperson for the state department of labor said in an emailed statement that the budget holding steady with last year’s funding — as opposed to decreasing — was “good news for both young people and Connecticut employers.” But she said the timing is problematic every year.
“If the final budget allocation is higher than expected, the programs could have a hard time ramping up participation in just a few weeks to put those funds to work,” DOL spokesperson Juliet Manalan wrote. “And if funding is lower than expected, the programs must pull back on participation.”
John Hampton, a spokesman for Capital Workforce Partners, the workforce board that administers youth employment grants in the Hartford region, said the program wouldn’t have had a problem ramping up this year. CWP had 4,000 applicants and was planning to increase internship numbers to 1,450 this year, he said. It will now only be able to offer 950 — the same as last year.
“These are students who may fall off the grid if they’re not gainfully employed,” Hampton said. “This generation is already facing issues with post pandemic and social inequities, violence and disruption in their daily lives. This hurts our most vulnerable youth.”