Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Bit More on What It Takes to Get Young People Jobs

In last week’s blog post on disconnected youth, we focused a lot on why preventing young people from dropping out of high school is an important strategy in stemming the tide of youth disconnection. Dropping out is often a young person’s first step towards becoming “disconnected”, and thus it makes sense to focus resources on preventing this occurrence. However, as the Casey Report “Youth and Work” pointed out, it is not just high school dropouts that become disconnected youth. Many teens and young adults are disconnected not because they lack a high school credential, but because the forces of globalization and technology coupled with a generally weak economy have created a job market that values higher levels of educational attainment. Simply put, teens and young adults are getting squeezed out of an increasingly competitive job market.

So we know young people face a steep uphill battle when it comes to finding employment that they are qualified for, but how do we solve this? Job creation is no easy thing, so simply creating more jobs that young people are qualified for may not be the best answer. Forced retirement for the baby boomer generation to make room for new workers would likely be an unpopular option. However, if we focus our energies on creating young people who are qualified to enter the workforce we might have a winning strategy on our hands.

An oft cited reason for low levels of youth employment is that even low-wage work such as jobs in the retail and hospitality sector now require a high school diploma or equivalent credential (usually a GED). Communities need to stop merely lamenting this fact and take action to get more young people to finish high school. To do this, of course we need to improve high schools (as we mentioned last week) so that young people want to remain engaged and see value in doing so. However, we also have to remember that not all young people will follow the same path in achieving a high school credential or in acquiring secondary level skills.

Many students will graduate high school in four years, but this is not the case for everyone. Some students will take longer and will thus require more support along the way, and some will inevitably drop-out. Other students will graduate, but will be ill prepared for future study or the world of work. This is where a robust offering of educational and career pathways is absolutely essential, not only in curbing youth disconnection, but in ensuring all young people have access to the labor market.

Examples of different “pathways” include: traditional high schools that provide extra support to students who have fallen behind, alternative high schools, GED preparation/adult basic education programs and even remedial classes at the post-secondary level. These programs all vary in the models to engage young people, and they should. Young people leave educational institutions at various points in their development and thus one wholesale approach to re-engagement will not be successful. Something all of the programs need to have in common though, is a shared understanding that a high school credential is only the first step in getting young people into jobs.

We are lying to young people if we tell them that ending their educational journey at the high school level will put them on the path to long term success. Thus the end goal of any educational intervention must be preparation for a post-secondary opportunity. Living wage work is rooted in the occupations that require this level of education and we must convey labor market expectations to young people if we want them to be successful. This is not to say that we need every program to prepare students to go to a traditional four-year college. In fact the range of post-secondary options that will prepare youth for living wage work also include: two-year degrees, industry recognized certification programs, apprenticeships and other formal job training opportunities.

This range of educational options and training is vast and what’s more it fits a wide range of interests and aspirations. Furthermore, students can also easily “stack” post-secondary options to achieve incremental wage gains or simply to make themselves more competitive in the labor market (e.g. obtaining an Associates in Computer Science and an IT Help Desk Certification or a Nursing Assistant Certificate and eventually a Bachelors in Nursing). The point is by articulating and setting the goal that every program or institution must prepare young people for these kinds of post-secondary opportunities, we set young people up for long term success in the labor market. 

For more information on DCAYA's work around disconnected youth and youth employment please visit us at or contact our Policy Team.

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