Building a Unified System to Better Serve Young People

Report Calls for Major Education and Workforce Reforms

Posted November 1, 2021, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

A young black woman sits among classmates, at a desk, with her hand raised.

Despite their many talents and aspirations, young adults are struggling to find well-paying jobs and are achieving financial self-sufficiency later in life. Economic downturns and uncoordinated educational and training systems are to blame, according to a new report funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and released by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW).

The report, If Not Now, When?, documents trends that put pressure on young people as they attempt to achieve economic independence.

It notes that the recessions in 2001 and 2008 severely damaged the job market for youth and young adults — conditions that have persisted and even worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. It also tells how the “fragmentation” of youth labor policy and education policy — plus inadequate federal investment — has created poor outcomes for young people, including extending their struggle to land good jobs that lead to financial security.

“The time is right to fundamentally rethink the country’s approach to youth policy and introduce an all-one-system approach,” the report concludes. “The impediments facing young people on the journey from youth to adulthood are not new, but they have reached new heights in a perfect storm of longstanding economic pressures and current pitfalls.”

The Employment Challenges Facing Young People

In previous generations, many young people could secure a good job with career prospects by their mid-20s. Now — as more jobs require some level of college education — a larger share of young people aren’t reaching this goal until their early 30s.

Today’s jobs also require more training, which can be expensive. Not surprisingly, the percentage of employed 16- to 21-year-olds declined from 59% in 1980 to 44% in 2019. A weaker youth labor market isn’t ideal and can make it harder for young people to gain high-quality work experience that can help launch a meaningful career later in life.

Add to this: America’s K–12 education system is struggling to prepare students for college or careers. Among high-school graduates who are working and between the ages of 18 to 25, only 20% get good jobs (defined as paying more than $35,000). The vast majority of these workers — 77% — are male.

“We haven’t connected the dots from early childhood, through K–12 and postsecondary education, to careers,” says Anthony P. Carnevale, CEW’s director and the report’s lead author. “We need an all-one-system approach that facilitates smooth transitions on the pathway from youth dependence to adult independence.”

Faults in the workforce pipeline create class and racial inequities that shape the world of work. For example, 41% of Black workers and 37% of Latino workers hold a good job, compared to 58% of white workers.

Steps to Create an All-One-System

The CEW report arrives amid intense policy discussions about creating more reliable pathways to financial security for young adults. The document lays out broad recommendations to improve K-12 education, higher education and the workforce system — and make them work better together — to help young people navigate educational and workplace transitions.

To better support younger children, the report calls for universal, high-quality preschool as well as health care, child care, paid family leave and caregiver support. It also touts programs that are more culturally responsive and representative of youth from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.

An all-one-system approach would help break down the artificial barriers between secondary schools, postsecondary institutions and the labor market through dual-enrollment programs, improved transfer policies from community colleges to four-year institutions and expanded access to apprenticeships and work-study programs.

A more robust career counseling system would give students the information and guidance they need to plan and pursue their educational and career goals. Free options would help low-income students attend college, and strong wraparound support services and transfer pathways would help traditionally underrepresented students attain degrees.

Finally, the report points to the importance of getting employers more involved in the development and provision of work-based education. Employers know their training and hiring needs, yet their involvement in the education system is limited.

“We have seen a compounding effect of economic cycles over the past 20-plus years, and many young people are getting left behind,” says Allison Gerber, director of Casey’s national employment, education and training initiatives. “We can’t prosper as a nation if we aren’t preparing our young people to thrive in a changing labor market. This report outlines steps we can take to more holistically address young people’s educational and career needs and strengthen our economic competitiveness.”

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