The most promising cornerstone for a national workforce agenda is one that offers prosperity for 5.5 million Americans aged 16-24 who are currently out of school and out of work.
These youth are an increasingly vulnerable population commonly referred to as “opportunity youth.”
Opportunity youth face considerable challenges to their educational and economic mobility. Many of them are counted among the estimated 1 million students who drop out of high school each year.
Nearly a quarter have exited college without a degree and the credentials they need due to financial constraints.
Almost all are actively looking for work but struggling to find gainful employment because they lack the qualifications and skills that the labor market demands.
Without a post-secondary credential, let alone a high school diploma or GED, the opportunities available to youth are increasingly limited — both in terms of the jobs available to them and the potential to increase their economic standing.
For example, we know that by the end of this decade, 65 percent of all jobs will require education or training beyond high school. Perhaps more importantly is the issue of jobs with a living wage and benefits.
According to “Good Jobs are Back: College Graduates Are First in Line,” since 2010, 97 percent of the 2.9 million openings jobs which pay $53,000 or more per year and are twice as likely to offer benefits like health insurance, have required a college degree.
Future workers may be aided by comprehensive workforce development strategies that include early investment in human capital and better information for younger students about the risks and rewards of multiple career paths and postsecondary education choices, as suggested by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond research.
Workforce development programs are often geared toward adult workers. But thinking about workforce development efforts as individual investments in human capital suggests that targeting younger people may yield high returns.
Fortunately, there are a number of public-private partnerships and community initiatives that are making progress to re-engage young people with the tools they need to meet the challenges of the 21st century global economy.
Under the 2014 Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act (WIOA), 75 percent of all federal investment in youth workforce development now focuses on programs that serve the unique needs of out-of-school, out-of-work youth.
Innovative programs such as Year Up’s intensive training program or Jobs for the Future’s Back on Track model and community initiatives such as the SkillSource Group, Inc. nonprofit entity of the Northern Virginia Workforce Development Board, are all poised to meet the unique needs of out-of-school youth and ensure they achieve education and career success.
Through these organizations, more out-of-school youth are now able to access financial incentives — such as paid training connected to viable career pathways — adequate support services, and a community of caring adults and mentors.
These investments are delivering compelling returns. More than 85 percent of Year Up’s graduates are employed or attending college full-time within four months of completing the Year Up intensive. Graduates start their careers earning an average of $18 per hour — the equivalent of $36,000 per year.
By investing in community programs we can identify best practices for serving opportunity youth and bring effective programs to scale — potentially re-engaging hundreds of thousands of young people nationwide.
More than 75 percent of opportunity youth report that they are confident they will eventually achieve their life goals, and more than half visualize themselves one day earning a college degree.
Workforce development efforts targeted at these younger populations can have high payoffs for the individuals involved and may make the overall labor market more resilient to change.
By building on the momentum of the passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and harnessing the effectiveness of community-based youth solutions, longer-run strategies within a national workforce strategy could usher in a new era of economic opportunity where all young people are afforded the chance to go on to become successful, productive Americans.
Nicole Truhe is the government affairs director of America Forward. Jen Giovannitti is a community development manager with the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.