A New Approach to Preparing Young Adults for Jobs

Posted April 15, 2016, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

The Foundation’s new Generation Work initiative aims to connect more young adults with jobs by bringing together two distinct sets of strategies: (1) demand-driven strategies that focus on building relationships with businesses and factoring in the needs of the local economy and (2) positive youth development.

But what exactly is positive youth development?

The Federal Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs describes positive youth development as an approach that intentionally “engages youth within their communities, schools, organizations, peer groups and families in a manner that is productive and constructive; recognizes, utilizes and enhances youths’ strengths; and promotes positive outcomes for young people by providing opportunities, fostering positive relationships and furnishing the support needed to build on their leadership strengths.”

This approach emerged after decades of other attempts — from informing young people of the consequences of poor life choices to scaring them into making better ones to resorting to punishment for inappropriate behavior — either failed or saw only moderate success in reaching youth. Indeed, as we’ve learned through our work to reduce juvenile detention and incarceration, the programs that make a real, demonstrable difference take a more constructive approach, concentrating on therapeutic counseling, building skills and case management.

Research suggests employing positive youth development strategies within youth-focused programs helps young people travel a less troubled road to adulthood. But what do these strategies look like in practice? While positive youth development can take many forms, it consistently includes several key elements.

Positive youth development:

  • is purposeful and deliberate. While positive youth development may, and should, seem warm and casual, it is a planned, thoughtful approach that involves training staff and monitoring whether such practices are actually in place on a daily basis.
  • benefits other people or society as a whole. Getting youth involved in activities such as volunteering reduces their likelihood of engaging in problem behaviors.
  • is an approach, not a program. A positive youth development approach can be used in various programs, systems and settings and take different forms, whether it exists within an apprenticeship or a job-training program.
  • emphasizes youth engagement. Positive youth development seeks to engage young people in learning, rather than lecturing or teaching them. This goes beyond just doing things and calls for caring and thinking about what the program has to offer.
  • recognizes youth potential. Positive youth development draws on youth strengths through meaningful projects or work, such as peer mentoring, that further enhances those strengths — whatever they may be.
  • provides opportunities to foster young people’s success. These opportunities might involve jobs, job training, volunteering or service learning, serving on youth advisory boards, referrals for assistance, mentoring or sports activities.

And the most important element, by far, is developing positive relationships with caring adults — consistent relationships that affirm young people, particularly those who may not have experienced trustworthy connections with adults. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Adolescent Health has suggested ways to foster such relationships in youth-serving programs.

Employment and training programs can begin infusing positive youth development strategies into their work with young adults by training staff to feel comfortable applying these principles in a variety of settings, such as the classroom, in one-on-one interactions and in work-related environments. Our local Generation Work partners are refining their use of such approaches as part of their efforts to help young people enter the workforce and begin building lifelong careers. They — and ultimately, we hope, others — will use what they learn from that process to weave developmentally appropriate strategies into their work around young adult employment. We look forward to sharing their progress in the years ahead.

Learn more about positive youth development.

Adapted from “Why Positive Youth Development Works.”