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The Effect of Letters of Recommendation in the Youth Labor Market

The project: Employment among young people is slower to recover after shocks like recessions, and unemployment and disconnection rates are 30-80% higher for Black and Hispanic youth than for their White peers. In a working paper, Sara Heller and Judd Kessler tested whether providing youth with personalized recommendation letters from supervisors in New York City’s Summer Youth Employment Program improves employment. The experiment automated the creation of letters by sending supervisors an online survey about youths’ strengths and turning their responses into full-text letters using a prototype software tool. Their research found that youth randomly assigned to receive a letter had higher employment and earnings in the two years after letter distribution, with effects concentrated among minorities. Given that providing a credible signal about a young person’s existing strengths increases earnings, especially for minorities, something like this program could be a scalable way to reduce poverty and racial employment gaps among young workers.

The process: Based on those preliminary findings, this project will work with a volunteer software development group, Code4Community at Northeastern University, to develop a freely-available, user-friendly version of the letter-generation tool that will be distributed to youth development and job training programs.

Sara Heller, U-M College of Literature, Science and the Arts