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.”

Read CEW’s report

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