The Benefits of Workforce Exposure and Career Programming for Youth and Young Adults

Posted May 2, 2021, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

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Many young people are ambitious and interested in a diverse array of career fields. Research shows that when young people are connected to the workforce, it increases the likelihood that they will be employed and earn family-sustaining wages later in life.

Yet young people can face myriad challenges finding employment, with those of color and those from low-income backgrounds experiencing specific barriers. Labor market participation has declined over the last few decades for youth and young adults — and the COVID-19 pandemic has only served to bring further difficulties for young people looking for work or connections to a career path.

Workforce development and educational systems and institutions, as well as the community organizations that support them, can respond by exposing young people — particularly those of color — to workforce training and initiatives that help youth earn credentials, employment experience and vital career connections through apprenticeships, internships, summer-job programs and other types of work-based learning opportunities.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation explored resources that highlight the benefits of these programs and how they can help young people connect to educational opportunities and jobs. Here’s what the Foundation found:

Work-based learning programs help young people of color and those from low-income backgrounds obtain higher quality jobs later in life

Pathways to High-Quality Jobs for Young Adults, a report from the Brookings Institution and Child Trends, examined employment outcomes for young people of color and those from low-income backgrounds, finding that:

  • work-based learning experiences in high school, including internships and apprenticeships, that incorporate positive relationships with adults help young people of color and those from low-income backgrounds gain higher-quality jobs by age 30; and
  • having a job as a teenager (ages 16 to 18) predicts higher job quality in adulthood and higher wages at age 23.

The report suggests strengthening work-based learning programs in high schools and helping teens and young adults — particularly those without a post-secondary degree — find on-ramps to employment.

Another Brookings report — Work-Based Learning Can Advance Equity and Opportunity for America’s Youth — cited a National Bureau of Economic Research report that found that programs like internships and apprenticeships in high school boosted employment for young people after graduation. It also noted that an MDRC report found that young people participating in Career Academies — which combine academic and career learning — had yearly earnings gains that were on average 11 percent higher than those who did not participate (the study measured 8 years after graduation).

Andrew Sum, professor of economics and director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, notes that the likelihood that youth and young adults can find work in a particular year is highly influenced by whether they worked the previous year.

Some work-based learning programs may improve educational outcomes

Work-Based Learning Can Advance Equity and Opportunity for America’s Youth also cites research that shows that programs that integrate career-focused programming into learning appear to improve graduation rates and promote higher postsecondary participation. For instance, the report points to evaluations of the Urban Alliance — which facilitates an internship program for high school students in Washington D.C. and other areas of the country — that show that participants saw higher graduation rates and enrollment in postsecondary programs compared to non-participants.

Greater alignment between workforce and educational systems can lead to positive results.

Nonprofits, workforce groups and educational systems can work together effectively to help connect young people to employment — and examples are emerging

Take Grads2Careers, a program that is jointly led by Baltimore City Public Schools, the Baltimore Mayor’s Office of Employment Development and Baltimore’s Promise, a city nonprofit. The effort seeks to foster greater partnership between the city’s workforce and educational systems to build sustainable new career paths for Baltimore high school graduates who are not in college or who do not yet plan on attending.

In its first phase, from 2018 to 2020, nearly 500 young adults — most of them African American — enrolled in programming. Of an initial cohort of 149 students, nearly three-quarters completed the program and 61% obtained a job with an average hourly wage at placement of nearly $13 per hour, according to assessment data. After 60 days, more than 90% of students in the first cohort who were placed in jobs were retained. A second cohort saw similar completion and retention results — though their average hourly wage was larger: $14.53.

Those results appear to be much better than Baltimore’s high school graduates generally. An analysis completed in 2017 of Baltimore’s class of 2009 found that most were struggling to stay connected to education or obtain work that paid a living wage — both shortly after graduating and six years later.

Similarly, the nonprofit Year Up — which operates in more than two dozen cities — works with local community colleges and other system leaders to connect young people (ages 18-24) who are disconnected from school and work to educational opportunities and internships in several fields, such as information technology and financial operations. An evaluation of the program found that, after 18 months, participants worked more hours and earned higher wages — on average nearly $4 more per hour — compared to young people not in the program.

Building career paths for young people who have been involved in public systems or faced other adverse circumstances is particularly important

Many young people who have been involved in foster care face barriers to completing school and gaining a career, as do those who have been involved in the juvenile justice system or faced homelessness. Programs that help connect these youth to career learning and educational programs can help them get back on track.

Learn and Earn to Achieve Potential (LEAP)™, a multisite initiative of the Casey Foundation, uses two career pathway models to meet these young people’s needs: Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG) and JFF’s Back on Track.

LEAP has seen some early success, according to assessments. LEAP’s 2019 evaluation found that nearly 70% of Back on Track participants had progressed into a postsecondary education or job-training program and forty percent had completed their first year.

Among young people who completed JAG’s “Active Phase” — during which the majority of services are delivered — 40% earned a high school credential. And of that group, 76% were either employed or in school at some point during the following six months.

Learn more about LEAP

Learn more about the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Generation Work initiative

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