Youth Jobs: Can the United States Recover?

Patrick Boyle
January 11, 2011

Amid signs that a recovery is sneaking into the economy, will the
people who’ve had the most trouble finding work finally catch a break?

would be young people, for whom unemployment is actually worsening. When experts gathered in Washington in December to
discuss a new international study of youth employment, the message was that if
we don’t make significant changes in how we guide many youths to careers, their
employment drought might be permanent.  

To be
sure, Off
to a Good Start: Jobs for Youth
—released by the
Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)—delivers evidence about effective education,
training and employment approaches here and in other nations. Yet it remains to be seen whether the United States has the resources and will to expand
what we do well and import effective practices from elsewhere.

An optimist would say that now
is the time to push for change. Examining 16 of its 33 member countries from 2006
to 2010, the OECD found that unemployment among 15- to 24-year-olds has reached
levels that we haven’t seen in a quarter-century: more than 25
percent in several countries, including 40 percent in Spain. (It’s about 20
percent in the United States today.)

That’s not the worst part. Although
the dire numbers are driven in part by the recession, the panelists who
gathered at the Urban Institute to discuss the findings last month agreed that youth
unemployment is rising because of fundamental economic changes—and that
unless we respond with fundamental changes in how we prepare youth for careers,
youth employment will not recover to pre-recession levels.

recession, the report says, “has highlighted that one of the main underlying
structural problems in the youth labour market is related to education and

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Many youth-serving
organizations are putting a lot of time and money into the national movement to
get more youth to complete high school. Those organizations know that a diploma
(or its equivalent) is essential but insufficient. The OECD report provides
international backup: “A low school drop-out rate alone,” it says, “is not
enough to guarantee low unemployment for youth.”

Poland and the Slovak Republic: they have among the lowest drop-out rates of the
OECD’s member countries, but more than 25 percent of their 20- to 24-year-olds
are unemployed. Off to a Good Start blames “a skills mismatch problem
between the curricula taught in vocational secondary schools, leading to
outdated qualifications and the requirements of the labor market.”

probably sounds familiar even if you’re not in Krakow. That’s why the
Washington-based Forum for Youth Investment, which helps communities prepare
their youth for college and careers, stresses that “academic competence, while
critical, is not enough.” It must be balanced with “efforts to build critical
non-academic competencies.”

Such as? Panelist Bob Lerman,
an Urban Institute fellow and professor of economics at American
University, noted that employers say they want
workers with not only basic math and literacy skills, but “a lot of non-cognitive
skills: communication, problem-solving.”

So what to do? The report
notes the effectiveness of some approaches widely used elsewhere and growing in
the United States, such as linking job training and experience to traditional
academic education, and starting early—by middle school.

Many of the boldest
approaches, however, seem impossible in the United States, such as raising the
required age for staying in school (as in England) and mandating full-time work-study for
18-year-olds who lack a diploma or its equivalent (as in the Netherlands). Asked
about transferring some of the best practices from overseas to the United
States, John Martin, the panel’s lead presenter and OECD’s director for employment, labor and social affairs, noted, “There are clearly some difficulties.”

Lerman has an idea: apprenticeships.

In the United States?

In several OECD nations, apprenticeships
are fundamental to youth employment.

“The school-to-work transition is easier in
countries where combining study and
work is frequent,” the report notes, citing Austria, Germany and
Switzerland as standouts.

It suggests that governments encourage companies to bring
on “more unskilled apprentices, because there is evidence that alternating
study and on-the-job training is an effective pathway for apprentices to enter
the labour market and for low achievers to gain a qualification.”

Apprenticeships do fit with
the growing U.S. effort to blend job training and academic education,
providing, as Lerman said, “some occupational certification that’s valued in
the labor market.”

Actually, he said, “we have a
system like that. We just don’t use it that much.”

He was talking about the system
funded and guided by the federal Office
of Apprenticeship
. About 212,000 people entered
that system in fiscal 2007 (the latest year available on the Office’s website –
another sign of that the effort gets low priority).

Lerman wants to expand apprenticeships
with more federal money (good luck) and tax credits for participating
businesses. Some of his research and writing about apprenticeships is here.

The idea
drew nods all around at the panel discussion, but could it take off here in the United States?
To Americans, the concept seems outdated and European. Say “apprentice,” and many of
us recall grade-school lessons about German shoemakers in the 1800s. 

are, however, attuned to a related process: internships. When I asked my
14-year-old son to explain an internship and an apprenticeship, he easily described
the former but stumbled over the latter, recalling that apprentices worked long
ago in other countries, at manual jobs. He’s typical; few Americans know that
you can find apprenticeships here, much less that you can find them in such areas
as health care, law enforcement and biotechnology.

Video: Animated graphs showing the impact of the crisis on young people and the outlook in the months ahead. (OECD) Click to view on YouTube.

At a wine-and-brownies
reception after the panel (really), I wondered if apprenticeships might be grafted
onto our country’s internship system – which is familiar to young people and
employers, and has an extensive delivery infrastructure. Lerman was intrigued
but saw impediments: apprenticeships typically last years while internships
last months, and businesses take on apprentices with the expectation of
eventually hiring them, while interns are usually just passing through.

Nevertheless, could some
internships be expanded into apprenticeships in a systematic way? Year Up takes
this approach through partnerships with businesses
How about expanding the concept through the likes of YouthBuild and Job Corps,
which have elements of apprenticeships and sometimes link with apprentice

Maybe it can’t work. But if
the youth unemployment problem demands fundamental changes, what changes are we
willing to try?

Learn More

Listen to the panel discussion
and see Martin’s Power Point presentation here.

The panel members were Martin;
Lerman; Jean Grossman, chief evaluation officer in the U.S. Department
of Labor’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Policy; and Ray
Uhalde, vice president of the Workforce
and Education Policy Group at Jobs for the Future. Patrick Boyle,
communications director at the Forum for Youth Investment, moderated.

Patrick Boyle is communications director at the Forum for Youth Investment. Before joining the Forum in 2010, he served as editor of Youth Today, the national news service for people who run youth programs.