How Employers And Policymakers Can Improve Job Opportunities For Young People

By Alison Decker

How old were you when you had your first job? High unemployment rates among teens and young adults has caught the attention of both press and policymakers. Since 2000, the job market for teens and young adults has shrunk. Only about 26 percent of youth are employed, according to Paul Harrington, director of the center for labor markets and policy at Drexel University. Instead, he says, there has been a rapid influx of older workers into traditional teen jobs.

“It’s basically a risk-averse activity by employers,” Harrington said. “They desire a set of behavior traits around reliability, behavior, and self-control. Kids are at the bottom of the queue on that.”

In the early 2000s, youth employment rates were at about 51 percent, 28 percent, and 30 percent for white, African-American, and Asian youth, respectively. But now, more than 15 years later, these numbers have dropped to 33 percent, 20 percent, and less than 20 percent.

Besides the low rates, the disparity is also problematic. Research has shown that youth unemployment can have lasting consequences – repressed wages, decreased upward mobility, and lessened productivity over a person’s work life. In particular, this is true for young people of color, who are often combating systemic barriers that limit their access to jobs – and which can contribute to setting them up for disparities later in life.

The Stakes for “Opportunity Youth”

Lashon Amado, national coordinator of Opportunity Youth United Community Action Teams, says that it is crucial to empower young people to realize that though they were born into poverty, that is not their fault – and despite what they may think, they do have the power to change their circumstances.

Amado has firsthand experience with fighting difficult odds for employment. He grew up in a rough area of Boston in a community where he says that he was surrounded by substance abuse and violence. He watched his family and peers “settle” for blue-collar jobs, which he considered “golden jobs,” and was disengaged at school.

“It was hard to identify role models and leaders,” Amado said. “I had to find a way to legitimize myself.”

He became involved with Youthbuild, an organization which aims to empower and assist underserved people with the life skills necessary to navigate pathways to self-sufficiency.

For Amado, this was a huge help. He had been applying for many jobs, but found the process overwhelming. Youthbuild provided a network of people who had been through this process and could help him look at all of his options. And he felt respected and supported.

“When you come from the streets, respect and trust are the two most valuable things. When I had that, I let myself be vulnerable and be guided,” he said.

Amado applied for over 30 jobs, but had difficulty finding any employers that would hire him because he had a past criminal record. All of the doors felt shut to him, he said.

“We have to change the culture – it’s about action and opening doors. Opportunity youth have to build their resume so they can become good candidates, but a lot of the time that access is not there.”

Finding a practical solution

In many ways, the system is not set up to help people like Amado, born and raised in difficult conditions, to find gainful employment. But how can we change that system? Policymakers and employers can make a huge difference to implement policies that facilitate inclusion of “opportunity youth” and help them succeed in the workplace.

“You have to meet young people where they are,” said Kisha Bird, director of youth policy at CLASP. “Just work opportunities are not enough. We focus on youth development principles and civic engagement, and understand the sheer toxic, stressful environment that young people are navigating.”

Expanding the roles that youth organizations play in their communities by funding coalitions could be one way that policymakers help to increase access for “opportunity youth” to job opportunities. Community organizations are often able to help local youth access these opportunities by providing a support system and acting as a third-party “vetting” system for employers. Fully supporting community organizations would allow them to build more long-term strategy.

“Most local youth programs have a brokering function,” said Harrington. “That’s a screening device for an employer to figure out that, ‘This is a good kid for me to bet on.’”

Employers can also increase opportunities within their own organizations – through ventures like apprenticeship programs or other initiatives.

For example, Tammy Simmons, vice president of marketing and culture at Machines Specialties Inc., works through the Guilford Apprenticeship Partners in North Carolina to recruit high-school juniors and seniors for a three-and-a-half year program. At the end of the program, the young people have a two-year degree, a journeyman certificate, zero college debt, and are guaranteed a job. Though there is no requirement that the young people in the apprenticeship program take a job with Machine Specialties, Inc after they finish, Simmons believes that the program does the whole community good. “We might not get a return on our investment, but even if one of these students leaves us, we brought this student into the community.”

For youth, getting that first job can be crucial, as it helps to set young people up for further successes. Expanding a conversation about how to get them there is only the first step.

This article was originally published on the Aspen Institute’s website under the title “The Importance of a First Job.”

Alison Decker is an editorial associate at the Aspen Institute and the managing editor of Ideas: The Magazine of the Aspen Institute.