Urban Wire Employer Engagement in Workforce Programming for Young People Affected by the Legal System
Arielle Jackson, Krista White
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For young people, contact and involvement with the legal system can interfere with their transition to stable adulthood. Being convicted or adjudicated of more serious offenses can make this transition especially challenging.

People who were incarcerated at any age are almost five times more likely than the general public to be unemployed. And Black, Latino, and Indigenous young people—who are overrepresented in the criminal legal system—are more likely to experience bias and discrimination in their daily lives, which is linked to racial disparities and other negative outcomes in education and employment.

Workforce support programs can help address these barriers and offer young people with legal system involvement opportunities to gain and maintain employment, financial stability, and self-sufficiency.

In recent work funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, we studied workforce development programs serving 16-to-24-year-olds who were convicted, adjudicated of, or charged with serious offenses in the juvenile or criminal legal system. These insights help inform best practices for workforce programming, employer engagement, and strategic sector placement.

Successful engagement requires a multipronged approach

Each program employed a variety of strategies to help meet participants’ needs, including engaging in multisector partnerships, offering a range of workforce and non-workforce-related supports, combining multiple funding streams, and measuring data on client progress and success.

Key considerations for intentionally designing programs to facilitate workforce engagement among young people with criminal records included the following:

  • using an individualized, developmentally appropriate, and strength-based approach, collaborating with participants to identify resources and goals, and allowing for extended engagement
  • offering wraparound support and ensuring participants can meet their basic needs—child care, stable housing, food security, and mental health supports—which can foster successful workforce engagement
  • engaging employers as a key partner in participants’ success, with a strong focus on determining fit—and employers’ willingness to improve their retention practices and troubleshoot when challenges arise

From the program staff we interviewed, we also learned critical lessons for employer engagement and sector placement to help other workforce programs better serve legal system-involved young people.

Lesson 1: Strategic job placement and sector fit help young people explore their career interests while working toward stable and lasting employment.

Job placement was a common program goal, and program staff try to make placements based on participants’ interests and the program’s existing employer partnerships.

Programs facilitated employment opportunities in a range of sectors, with the most common being transportation, construction, and agriculture. Other sectors include food preparation and service, landscaping, production and factory work, materials moving, office and administrative support, installation, maintenance and repair, and health care support occupations.

Some program staff also indicated that having a wide range of placement options allowed them to be flexible and tailor placements to the participants. If a placement didn’t seem to be working for the participant or the employer, program staff could to find a better fit, though interviewees said this didn’t happen often and that most participants stuck with their initial placement.

Lesson 2: Be intentional about employer partnerships and focus on building connections with employers that are open and willing to hire young people with system involvement.

Programs often coach employer partners and host trainings with outside experts on cultural competence and best practices to support system-involved young people.

Some programs provide feedback to employers that want to learn how to improve their hiring and retention practices and better facilitate participant success.

Employer advisory councils and business advisory teams—where workforce organizations and local employers can collaborate and discuss participants’ needs and possible employment opportunities—can also be helpful.

Lesson 3: Some employers may be unwilling to work with young people with prior legal system involvement, leaving participants less likely to engage with employers.

Some employers are hesitant to work with young people affected by the legal system, which could make it difficult for participants to find employment.

Programs mitigated these outcomes with Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) funding and similar grants to pay participants while they intern with employers (also referred to as subsidized employment). Once the participant completes any required trainings and has shown their commitment to the job, the employer can hire them full time and take over paying their wages. One program staffer said, “It just takes one success with an employer to break down barriers.” But we also learned that WIOA funds can be difficult to access in many communities.

Lesson 4: Young people are entrepreneurial and want to explore opportunities in information technology (IT) and business.

Construction and maintenance are two of the most common sectors offered through workforce programming, but young people are interested in other fields too.

There can be some sector-based limitations for placement based on participants’ records, specifically when it comes to nursing and related health care occupations and IT. To secure placements in these sectors, programs must find companies open to hiring these young people. Although these limitations were once a common barrier for participants interested in the health care support field, program staff have been able to place participants in some of these opportunities more recently because of labor shortages.

Though interviewees said prior system involvement should not hinder future employment opportunities, not every employer shares this belief. To help participants achieve their professional goals and bridge the jobs gap, programs will need to build mutually beneficial relationships with employer partners. The more these programs engage with employers, the more employers will adapt their hiring practices to support young people in their transition to employment.

Engagement with employers and strategic sector placement is necessary for young people to succeed in workforce programming and secure meaningful employment. Despite the challenges this work can present, these lessons and strategies from practitioners can boost program success and help young people secure employment and a stable future.

Research Areas Workforce
Tags Employment Job opportunities Job search and matching Juvenile justice Labor force Subsidized employment Workforce development Youth employment and training Employer engagement
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center
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