The Importance of Trust, Training and Multiple On-Ramps in Workforce Efforts
Lessons from Generation Work
Ten years ago, the Annie E. Casey Foundation began focusing on an urgent challenge: How to better connect young adults — especially young people of color from low-income families — with jobs and, ultimately, family-supporting careers.
Drawing on Casey’s previous workforce development initiatives, we aimed to better understand the needs of job seekers and businesses and craft strategies that would benefit both groups. Reviewing the available evidence, we looked at leveraging supportive and skill-building services to address the needs of still-developing young adults while preparing employers to help these young workers thrive. This approach would help strengthen pathways to careers and demonstrate new ways for employers to recruit and retain the talent they needed in a changing labor market.
Such considerations fueled the 2016 launch of Generation Work™, a multi-site initiative in which local partners change the way public and private systems prepare young people for jobs. Unlike other workforce efforts, Generation Work focused explicitly on addressing systemic barriers that can put career-supporting opportunities out of reach for young people of color in low-income families.
As Generation Work enters a new phase, three of our partners have documented lessons and challenges in advancing this initiative. These partners identified key ingredients for removing barriers and advancing equity for young workers — ingredients such as trust, time, training, staff buy-in, personal introductions with employers and multiple routes to the right fit between employer and employee. In addition, Casey’s team has generated its own lessons about funding this effort.
About Generation Work
With Casey support, partners in five communities — Cleveland, Hartford, Indianapolis, Philadelphia and Seattle — helped align education, employment and support services to prepare young people to be job-ready throughout the first phase of Generation Work.
The first seven years of the initiative unfolded during challenging times that saw the COVID-19 pandemic and a national reckoning on issues of race — conditions that changed the landscape for employees and employers.
Despite the pandemic, existing participants remained engaged in training in 2020 and 2021, with dropout rates far below national averages for workforce programs. At the same time, the number of new students enrolled in workforce programming or securing employment declined due to related disruptions. In 2019, 4,992 young people who completed the program were placed into ongoing postsecondary education or employment, compared to 3,535 in 2020 and 2,866 in 2021.
Reviewing Generation Work’s Progress
Over the past seven years, Generation Work has addressed deeply rooted inequities in education and employment systems that hamper many young people of color from succeeding in the labor market. Recent evaluations have provided important insights in three areas.
- In two evaluation summaries, MDRC examined Generation Work’s efforts to make workforce systems more racially equitable. The MDRC review highlighted the importance of “strong senior leadership and a clearly articulated vision shared by leaders and staff across the partner organizations,” concluding that efforts to make a workforce system more equitable also require a high level of trust among partners. MDRC found that it takes a long time for workforce development leaders and employers to grasp the root causes of systemic barriers for young adults of color. While Generation Work partners recognized the need to address such inequities, they also struggled to find the time and resources to do so.
- Child Trends assessed Generation Work’s use of positive youth development into employment training. The review found that there is no single template for implementing positive youth development principles and that partners needed to evolve the template to address local issues. In addition, the review underscored the value of strong communication with employers, as well as across workforce providers and within systems. Personal introductions to employers and other providers and varied entry points helped ensure that young people could be referred to another organization and receive the services they needed for a good employment fit.
- The Aspen Institute reviewed Generation Work’s engagement with employers. In the first stage of the initiative, Generation Work partners encouraged employers to cultivate opportunities that offered young employees valuable, paid work experiences; opportunities to expand their networks and explore their strengths and career interests; and schedules that accommodated their school and personal responsibilities. Aspen also encouraged lawmakers and funders to devote resources to supporting workforce development entities in establishing deeper relationships with employers.
Funding Generation Work
When we at the Casey Foundation reviewed our role as a funder of Generation Work, four main lessons emerged. These are:
- With a flexible approach, local partnerships embraced improving services to young people using both positive youth development and racial equity and inclusion resources. While Generation Work provided a common framework and helped address local pain points with targeted capacity building, partner organizations moved at their own pace and worked in different ways, emphasizing the value of flexible resources and year-over-year support — especially during the pandemic.
- Young people are well-served by program partners. While some young people do not matriculate through Generation Work programs as quickly as other initiatives, this is by design. Generation Work programs and partners seek to hang on to young people over time, linking them to different services that stack skill-building, employment and wrap-around support that create stability on an employment journey. One area of opportunity, however, is that the burden of making these connections too often falls on direct-service staff who consistently go the extra mile — an approach that is unsustainable in the long term.
- More work is needed to align systems and funding for long-term support of young workers. Each of the partnerships succeeded in aligning services across adult- and youth-oriented funding streams and within education, workforce and human service systems. Yet, most of these successes were related to influencing interpretations of the allowable uses and the braiding of existing funds. Aside from a one-time influx of support in the wake of the pandemic, partners have not seen a lot of new money become available. Supporting young people’s basic needs and responding to the pandemic’s disruptions became a priority that reduced partners’ capacity to focus on strategic, long-term change efforts. Additional work is necessary to integrate youth development and employer engagement practices through formal system alignment and funding.
- Employer engagement is a complex and continuous task that must meet employer realities. Generation Work partners are skilled at engaging employers and influencing how employers hire young workers. Shaping the retention and promotion of young workers, however, has proved more difficult. Early in the first phase, local partnerships refocused on making the case for supporting and advancing young adults as well as on developing resources about targeted practices, such as frontline supervision and upskilling. While increased attention and commitment to racial equity by private sector leadership has the potential to advance opportunities for young people of color, many employers find themselves short staffed and trying to maintain financial profitability in an uncertain market — and engagement efforts must continue to adapt to this changing context.
What’s Next for Generation Work?
In its second phase, Generation Work has expanded to support partnerships in eight cities. The initiative will continue engaging with employers while sharpening its focus on hiring, retention and advancement — including promoting the value of hands-on learning and wraparound services like coaching, child care subsidies and transportation.
The Foundation’s choice to manage the first phase of Generation Work internally enabled it to develop deep, trusting relationships with local partners. Yet, this approach also limited Casey’s capacity to address the technical assistance needs of partners in real time. The National Fund for Workforce Solutions is well-established for its expertise in sector strategies and industry partnerships. This organization will manage the initiative’s second phase, offering both technical assistance and coaching on equitable employment practices. As for Casey: It will continue to help its partners grow their capacity to serve young people and continue to collect and share lessons that will advance this work.