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The Avenue

Help wanted: Better pathways into the labor market

Employment is down among everyone between the ages of 16 and 64—particularly among teens, but with a great deal of variation by geography, race, and education. The disparity between blacks and whites is especially stark. For example, unemployment among white young adults peaked at 14% in 2010—still considerably lower than unemployment rates for black young adults at any point in the 2008 to 2014 time period. Unemployment for black 20- to 24-year-olds rose to 29.5% in 2010 and fell to 22.3% in 2014, compared to 10.3% among whites in 2014.

While there is no silver bullet, higher levels of education and work experience clearly improve job prospects down the line for young people. There are multiple strategies local and regional leaders can use to build more structured pathways into employment.

Teens and young adults (referring to 16- to 19-year-olds and 20- to 24-year-olds, respectively) are not monolithic populations. Age is an obvious differentiator, but so are a number of other factors, such as educational attainment, skill level, interests, parental support, and other life circumstances.  Schools, families, and neighborhoods all play a role in a young person’s trajectory—both positive and negative. But at the most basic level, a program for a 17-year-old high school student is likely not appropriate for a 23-year-old, regardless of educational attainment. Successful programs integrate education, training, work-readiness, and youth development principles, but the particular blend of these elements and settings vary: more school-based and educationally focused programs for younger youth, and more community-based and career-focused programs with strong ties to education for older youth.

An admittedly non-comprehensive review includes the following types of promising and proven programs:  

For high school students:

For out-of-school youth and young adults:

  • Highly structured programs offering work readiness and technical skills development, often in partnership with community colleges, and coupled with paid internships, such as Year Up, i.c.stars, npower, and Per Scholas
  • Programs that offer stipends and combine academics, job training, mentoring, and supportive services while carrying out community improvement projects, such as YouthBuild and Youth Corps

The sobering fact is that promoting employment and economic security among young people is not a straightforward proposition. To succeed in today’s economy and earn middle-class wages, a young person needs to complete several steps: graduate from high school or earn an alternate credential; enroll in and complete some post-secondary education or job training; preferably gain meaningful work experience; and enter the labor market with in-demand skills. (A decent economy and some luck help, too.) There are many points along that path from which a young person can get off-track, particularly young people of color and those from high-poverty neighborhoods. And while high youth unemployment is increasingly in the news these days, the difficulties youth without college degrees face in finding good jobs has been a problem for decades.

Programs such as the ones listed above are part of the solution. But they are not enough, given the magnitude of the problem. In order to produce better employment outcomes at scale, leaders from all sectors and levels of government need to make broader shifts in how education and workforce programs are designed, and how they interact with each other and employers. That is a heavy lift, but it is worth it to address the high costs imposed by the status quo: high unemployment, poverty, and untapped potential.  

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