The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
October 3, 2014

A promising solution for the prolonged youth employment crisis

October 3, 2014

Today’s September jobs report brought some good news for the “jobless recovery”: last month, our economy added an estimated 248,000 new jobs, helping drive the unemployment rate down to 5.9 percent, a six-year low.

But the employment situation remains dire for young people, especially young people of color, who face jobless rates up to three times the national average. What’s more, young people’s participation in the labor market is falling, and rates of disconnection—youth neither in school nor working—are increasing.

The obvious question is, what can we do about it?

Today, Urban Institute President Sarah Rosen Wartell moderated a panel discussion among business leaders who believe they’re onto at least part of the answer. The panel, held at the US Chamber of Commerce’s Washington, DC headquarters, followed a keynote address by Vice President Joe Biden, who spoke at length about the success of an 18-year-old organization called Urban Alliance. UA partners with businesses to intervene in kids’ lives at a critical time—midway through high school—pairing them with a paid professional job and mentorship into college.

“You gotta know how to know,” Biden said, referring to how valuable positive professional experience is in terms of future labor market success.

That sentiment reflects one of Urban Alliance’s core goals. It targets kids who are on the bubble—neither failing high school nor making stellar grades—and provides them with a clear vision of a successful future in the job market. Critically, UA pairs these students with a professional mentor to help them develop the classroom and professional skills they need to get there.

Preliminary evidence suggests that the program is working. “Because of this program I am not trapped in the lifestyle of the average black male from Baltimore city,” said a 2012 Urban Alliance alum. “This internship can be the start of a life you never knew you were able to accomplish.”

Urban Alliance is as good for businesses as it is for students

According to Urban Alliance, 100 percent of its students graduate high school and 75 percent go to college. Businesses also benefit from the program, as noted by panel participants from Marriott International, Bank of America, and Morgan Stanley, whose companies have provided internships for Urban Alliance students. Their consensus was that not only is the program of great benefit to the students, but it’s critical for the companies that employ them.

“We look at the 13 percent youth unemployment rate and we see opportunity,” said Kathleen Matthews, chief global communications and public affairs officer of Marriott International. “We are a very labor-intensive company and we’re going to need workers.”

She added that customers in US Marriott hotels hail from around the globe and value seeing employees who look like them. “Having a diverse workforce is an asset for companies like ours.”

Urban Alliance is being evaluated with a rigorous randomized experiment

It’s also notable that Urban Alliance is midway through evaluation under a randomized controlled trial, designed and run by the Urban Institute. The goal is to test scientifically if Urban Alliance students truly have better outcomes than similar youth who do not receive that intervention.

Such rigorous evaluation is rare for social programs. “Urban Alliance has made a sustained investment in learning about the effectiveness of their programs,” said Urban Institute Senior Research Associate Brett Theodos, who is coleading the evaluation. The assessment is “way beyond typical” for that kind of program, he added.

Last week, Urban published its baseline Urban Alliance report, and identified five key lessons that have come so far from the evaluation. Interim and final results will follow in coming years.

Results of the final evaluation will be critical to knowing if young people are truly benefiting from this program. But the evaluation itself is an important milestone in matching good public policy with rigorous evaluation.

The data will tell us if these programs are making a real difference, Wartell said. And it's "a powerful and important step that they’re willing to subject their program to this kind of analysis."

Photo by Zach McDade, Urban Institute. Follow Zach on Twitter.

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