Spotlight Exclusives

Reconnecting Youth and Work: Six Steps for Success

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A generation of young Americans is being cut off from the prosperity our nation۪s economy historically offers. The employment of youth is at its lowest level since World War IIonly about half of young people ages 18 to 24 held jobs in 2011. Among teenagers in that group, only one in four were employed, compared to 46 percent as recently as 2000. Roughly 6.5 million young adults are not only out of work, but out of school, and of those, 1.4 million are young parents.

The data show that those struggling the most come from low-income families, have less education and belong to a racial or ethnic minority. Fewer than one in six black and Asian teenagers and one in five Hispanic teens were employed in 2011.

Truly, America۪s young people stand last in line for a job.

It has taken decades to get to this point, starting some 40 years ago with the first movement of manufacturing jobs offshore. But it۪s escalated today into a broad chasm between young people and the skilled jobs now demanded by our economy. We have to close the gap.

The consequences of not doing so are horrific. We are casting aside a generation that tries, but can۪t even find part-time or starter jobs. This disconnection from the workforce this waste of talent and earnings potential has profound consequences not only for the young, but for our nation.

One recent study estimates that for each 16-year-old out of school and out of work, the future lifetime burden on taxpayers is $258,040. Another study projects that by 2020 America will fall short by 1.5 million workers with college and graduate degrees but will have a surplus of nearly six million unemployed individuals who didn۪t finish high school.

Earlier this year, the Annie E. Casey Foundation published the 23rd edition of its KIDS COUNT Data Book, charting the status of the young on both a national and state-by-state basis. That research led to the publication this month of a new KIDS COUNT Policy Report entitled, “Youth and Work: Restoring teen and young adult connections to opportunity.”

We discovered that with real commitment, there is reason to be hopeful. There are programs and approaches that do work. We also found that reconnecting youth to education and employment will require a multifaceted approachno one system or sector can do it alone.

Applying the best research and expertise available, we came to three basic principles: young adults themselves must play a role in devising solutions; any strategy should revolve around closing racial and economic disparities; and, efforts must rely on the best possible information, data, and evaluation.

Based on these principles, we have established six recommendations. First, we must develop a national youth employment strategy. The implications of failure are national in scope and must be addressed on that basis. This strategy should include public and private institutions, philanthropic and nonprofit organizations, and government and business leaders.

Second, along with a national strategy, there must be an alignment of resources at the community level.  National organizations such as Jobs for the Future, the National League of Cities, and the Center for Law and Social Policy are helping local communities build partnerships that navigate such complex public systems as child welfare and juvenile justice.

Third, we must take advantage of programs that work such as career academies and industry-based training programs by recognizing their potential and expanding them. Programs run by the Corporation for National and Community Service, such as AmeriCorps, provide rewarding growth opportunities through service in communities across the country.

Fourth, we must explore and support innovative approaches to job creation. Social enterprises, for example, often enter into commercial or government contracts in areas that range from landscaping and neighborhood clean-up to facilities management and retail sales. Goodwill, with its 165 community-based organizations, is a well-known social enterprise.

Fifth, we need to ask our employers to create career pathways for young people. UPS, for instance, established a Metropolitan College program to attract employees for its Worldport air hub in Louisville, Kentucky. Working with city and state leaders, the University of Louisville, and Jefferson Community and Technical College, UPS pays the college tuition for its part-time employees who work the air hub at night.

Sixth, in everything we do, we must adopt a “two-generation approach.” By that I mean we must support services for the children of these young people. We don۪t want parents to have to pick between going to school and caring for their child.

There should be no illusion about the challenge here. We must transform our response to meet the needs of this generation standing last in line. How we respond will determine if these young people are a benefit or burden to America.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Robert Giloth is the vice president of the Center for Community and Economic Development at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight۪s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don۪t hesitate to contact us at

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