Study: Early Work Experience and Supportive Adults A Boon to Low-Income Youth

Posted December 6, 2018, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Young person at work with colleagues

Young people who grow up in low-income households often face steep challenges on the road to adulthood.

But three factors — a post-secondary degree, early labor market experience and work-based learning opportunities that include positive relationships with adults — can improve their future success, according to a new report funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Pathways to High-Quality Jobs for Young Adults examines employment outcomes for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and identifies experiences that can increase their chance of landing good jobs later in life. Among its key findings:

  • A college degree is the strongest predictor of a high-quality job among young adults who were disadvantaged as adolescents, highlighting education’s potential as an equalizing force.
  • Work-based learning experiences in high school, including internships and apprenticeships, that incorporate positive relationships with adults still affect job quality a decade later, whereas the effects of other training programs can fade over time.
  • Having a job as a teenager (ages 16 to 18) predicts higher job quality in adulthood, as do higher wages at age 23.
  • Previous incarceration is associated with lower job quality at age 29.

“While not entirely surprising, these findings — and the methodology used to obtain them — certainly add weight to what we’ve long heard from youth- and young-adult-serving organizations about the importance of early work experience and supportive adult relationships,” says Allison Gerber, a senior associate at the Casey Foundation. “The data show us the power these interventions can hold in helping to level the playing field and prepare more young adults to reach their full potential.”

Authored by the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program and Child Trends, the report also shares four recommendations for improving the employment prospects of young people who are growing up in disadvantaged households. It advises:

  • Strengthening the work-based learning elements of career and technical education in high school.
  • Supporting efforts to raise completion rates for post-secondary degrees, with an explicit focus on quality and equity.
  • Improving on-ramps to employment for teens and young adults, particularly for those without post-secondary credentials.
  • Promoting further research and action on the role of positive adult relationships in employment and training programs that serve youth and young adults.

The report focuses on young people born between 1980 and 1984. It uses data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 to explore how particular employment, education and training experiences affect job quality. Understanding which factors help or hinder employment prospects can spur better policies and practices that equip more young people with the skills and training needed to succeed in the evolving labor market.

“Now that we have this information, it’s time to move the conversation toward the policy and practice changes that can make a difference in young people’s lives,” says Gerber.

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