Solving a National Crisis: Youth Employment and Opportunity

December 4, 2012

Image: Casey Foundation, Youth and Work

Youth unemployment is at the highest level since World War II. Only 20 percent of teens have jobs. In 2000, 46 percent had jobs.

Do you remember your first job? The way it felt to have people counting on you? To earn a paycheck?

“We all probably learned more about the workforce in our first jobs than we did in all our years in college,” Patrick McCarthy, President of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, told a room full of attendees at the Dec. 3, 2012 release of a major new KIDS COUNT report on youth employment. Watch the full briefing here.

More than 6.5 million American youth ages 16 to 24 are missing out on this on-the-job training.

These "disconnected” or “opportunity youth" are neither in school nor in the workforce—a disconnection that leads to lower lifetime earnings and a marked increase in adult unemployment. Our economy suffers as well: A 2012 Civic Enterprise study finds that the total taxpayer burden for all out-of-school and out-of-work youth ages 16 to 24 is $1.56 trillion.

What’s more, 21 percent of these young people are parents themselves, raising the risk of an intergenerational cycle of poverty.

The report, Youth and Work: Restoring Teen and Young Adult Connections to Opportunity, is the latest in a growing collection of rigorous research on disconnected youth produced by diverse organizations ranging from the public policy firm Civic Enterprises to the White House Council on Community Solutions.

At the Dec. 3 event, McCarthy was joined by leaders in youth development, business and philanthropy, including Karen Pittman, CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment (SparkAction’s managing partner); Pamela Paulk, senior vice president of Human Resources for Johns Hopkins Health System; Bob Giloth, vice president, Casey Foundation's Center for Community and Economic Opportunity; Stacey Stewart, U.S. president, United Way Worldwide; John Wilcox, executive director, Corporate Voices for Working Families; Melody Barnes, CEO of Melody Barnes Solutions, LLC and chair of the Aspen Institute Forum for Community solutions; Mark Edwards, executive director,  Opportunity Nation; John Bridgeland, CEO, Civic Enterprises; and Jamiel Alexander, a young member of National Council of Young Leaders and a YouthBuild graduate.

To a roomful of nodding heads, John Bridgeland said that the recent national focus on disconnected youth, of which this report is part, represents "an extraordinary moment" in history.

We must "harness this energy to establish a bold national goal to cut the number of opportunity youth in the nation in half over a specific period of time," he said.

Solving a National Crisis

In a panel moderated by journalist Amy Scott, several of these experts discussed the report’s findings and what we know about solutions.

Among the findings: it is more difficult than ever to land a living-wage job without a high school degree.  As the KIDS COUNT report notes, “it often takes a GED to get a job flipping hamburgers.”

In addition to credentials and training, young people need positive work experiences and support to develop the creative problem-solving and social skills necessary to succeed in the workplace.

Vulnerable youth or those who have disconnected need access to multiple pathways back to work that combine education, training and supportive services, as well as strong relationships with adults.

What stands in the way? One of the biggest problems is that the systems systems designed to support young people—K-12 education, afterschool, higher learning, workforce development, juvenile justice and foster care for example—don’t work together or share data. In the worst cases, they may have conflicting goals and requirements.

“We have to stop waiting for young people to fail and then looking for programs that support them,” said the Forum for Youth Investment's Karen Pittman.

Instead, she said, we need to align the resources and supports ahead of time, for example, by connecting child care, transportation and health care to GED or workforce training programs "because we know these are common barriers."

Model Programs

Across the country, states and communities have built successful interventions that can serve as models.

The most effective of these programs "combine skills training with public service and education and take a holistic approach to helping youth succeed by themselves," Melody Barnes said during the panel.

"Our job now is to bring these successful programs to scale to address the crisis of opportunity youth," she added.  

(Blog continues below video.)

Produced by the Amplification Project for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, this video tells the story of young people and professionals on the front lines of the youth unemployment crisis.

To ensure that our country’s 6.5 million opportunity youth can reach their potential, we need to replicate these effective programs in other areas of the country, weaving them into the fabric of our communities.

Panelists identified four principles for this work:

  • Build on the current national momentum and cross-sector partnerships
  • Build solutions from what is working on the ground, using evidence
  • Include young people’s voices and leadership
  • Focus on closing racial and economic disparities

It will also take a cross-generational approach; we must simultaneously invest in small children and in their parents. 

“If you’re going to build a better future for this country, you have to adopt a two-generation strategy: simultaneously investing in young children—in their early development, educational success, in the development of social and emotional and cognitive skills—and in their parents. You have to help their parents be on the path to economic security, jobs and success,” Patrick McCarthy said.

For advocates and supporters looking to get involved, the report lays out four specific recommendations for lawmakers, business, faith-based and nonprofit organizations, public agencies and philanthropy:

  • Create a national youth employment strategy that streamlines systems and makes financial aid, funding and other support services more accessible and flexible; encourages more businesses to hire young people; and focuses on results, not process.
     
  • Align resources within communities and among public and private funders to create collaborative efforts to support youth.
     
  • Explore new ways to create jobs through social enterprises such as Goodwill and microenterprises, with the support of public and private investors.
     
  • Increase Employer-sponsored earn-and-learn programs that foster the talent and skills that businesses require — and develop the types of employees they need.

 

Messaging the Work

Solving the crisis of youth unemployment will require a coordinated communications approach. Here are some thoughts from the panelists.

"Disconnected" vs. "Opportunity" Youth
What's the best way to refer to the 6.5 million young people ages 16 to 24 who are not in school and cut off from the workforce?

Mark Edwards and John Bridgeland advocate for using both. The child and youth field has historically used "disconnected," but it is a negative term that focuses on deficits. While it might be more familiar to the media and needs less explanation than opportunity youth, it misses the point that these are kids with potential. There is significant ropportunity for these youth themselves and for our economy if they get the skills they need to reconnect.

How do we define "ready"?
We need to redefine what success looks like for these young people. Karen Pittman suggests creating an agreed-upon list of competencies that all young people need to succeed. Right now, we bounce back and forth between a demand for academic competence (degrees and credentials) and skills such as team-building, communication and critical thinking to address challenges. Nurturing one without the other is likely to be counter to success.

Watch the full Dec. 3 briefing:


Alison Waldman is SparkAction's editorial associate and Caitlin Johnson the co-founder & managing editor. Thaddeus Ferber, VP of Policy at the Forum for Youth Investment and co-founder of SparkAction also contributed to this blog.

Alison Waldman (with Caitlin Johnson)
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Comments

A systematic review of effective programs will aid the process of identifying programs that have been proven to have positive impact based on objective analysis and rigorous evaluation . The pending results of the YouthBuild randomized control trial (RCT) is an opportunity to begin to understand what works (or does not work). The evidence base for interventions targeting "opportunity" is minimal, at best. For example, the case studies highlighted in the Casey KIDsCount report is inspiring but does not represent true evidence, that is evaluation based on rigorous experimental designs (e.g. RCTs). Programs evaluated through RCTs such as the NG Youth ChalleNGe, YouthBuil, Year-Up, and Community Service Corps programs have shown promise yet have also demonstrated weaknesses amongst their strengths. Unwrapping the mechanisms believed to lead to positive effects is an important step in improving workforce interventions. Finally, Karen Pittman&;s call to identify core competencies necessary for positive youth development should be included in any effort to develop strategies to engage disconnected youth.

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