Got Jobs? Some Positive News on Helping Young Adults Get Good Jobs – Part I

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Betsy Brand, Executive Director

Finding a full-time job that pays a family wage has been tough for many young adults. The stories of college graduates returning home to live with Mom and Dad while they search for a job are plentiful – as I can personally attest to! Sometimes those searches take months or years. As hard as it is for those young adults who have a college degree to find a job, what is it like for the young adults that don’t have a two- or four-year college degree? How about the ones that don’t even have a high school diploma? How difficult is it for them to enter the labor market? Statistics paint a depressing picture:


  • High school dropout rates, while lower in recent years, continue to be too high, especially for certain subgroups of students. Poor students in the bottom 20% of all family incomes were five times more likely to drop out of high school than high-income students (top 20% of all family incomes).
  • African American and Hispanic students graduate high school at lower rates, 68% and 76% respectively compared to White students who graduate at 85%.
  • Unemployment rates for young adults ages 16-24 have been at historic highs the past few years. An estimated 3.8 million youth ages 18 to 24 or roughly 15% of all young adults are neither employed nor in school. Since 2000, the ranks of these disengaged young adults have grown by 700,000, a 19%
  • Only about 50% of young Black men ages 16 to 24 who are not enrolled in school are employed.
  • Unemployment is also high for other categories of young adults who often face challenges in school, including youth exiting from the foster care system (47% unemployed), those who were incarcerated (50% unemployed), and young adults with disabilities (28% unemployed for ages 20-24).
  • According to a report by Public/Private Ventures, “Fifteen million people between the ages of 16 and 24 are not prepared for high-wage employment, and inadequate education or training is a major reason.

In addition to poor educational and workforce preparation, many young adults face other barriers to labor market success, such as having health and mental health, transportation, child care, family, and housing issues. They also might not ever have had the help of a family member or caring, committed mentor to guide them in making life choices to an appropriate career pathway.

Fortunately, we’ve learned a lot about the types of programs and services that help disconnected young adults develop college and career skills and find productive employment. One lesson we’ve learned is to create better connections between programs and provide a case manager to help the young person navigate them. Another is to use assessment wisely to identify at-risk youth early and to determine what skills they have and what they might be missing, so that services can be well-targeted. Integrating academics and career training is helpful as young adults see how the academic content is applied and used in real-life settings and shows them a path to postsecondary education and higher skill levels. And, providing young adults with the opportunity to experience meaningful work and earn a stipend is key.

Other things that make a difference are providing social and emotional supports, focusing on life coaching to build resilience and self efficacy, learning from brain research on executive functioning skills, addressing pressing problems like housing or health before starting academic courses, and creating a strong bond with a caring adult.

We are fortunate that the recently-passed Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014 builds on many of the good practices that the field has been promoting. Some of the positive changes that support the older youth population in the new Act include:

  • Expanding the definition of high-risk youth and extending eligibility from age 21 to age 24.
  • Increasing the percentage of youth formula funds used to serve out-of-school youth to 75% from 30% under current law.
  • Requiring local areas to spend at least 20% of youth formula funds on work experience activities such as summer jobs, pre-apprenticeship, on-the-job training, and internships so that youth can get work experience.
  • Increasing the focus on education, training, and skill gains, rather than just finding possibly low-wage employment.
  • Focusing on career pathways and connections to postsecondary education.
  • Requiring unified planning at the state and local levels to improve access to employment, education, training, support, and other services, particularly for those with barriers to employment.

With these guidelines in place, hopefully we can increase the numbers of disconnected young adults who are gainfully and meaningful employed in living-wage careers.

Our next post will provide a more detailed look at an innovative program in California, @LIKE, supported by the Department of Labor’s Workforce Innovation Fund that serves disconnected youth ages 18-24 and has incorporated many innovative features mentioned above. A blog with testimonials from some of the young people about their experiences with @LIKE will follow.

Betsy Brand is Executive Director of the American Youth Policy Forum


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.