Urban Wire How Can We Better Connect Youth to Work and School? Five Lessons for Youth Employment Programs
Sara Edelstein
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In a time when youth unemployment rates are soaring and postsecondary education is increasingly necessary for finding a good job, programs that guide high school students toward further education and employment are critical. But while programs exist for youth who are already safely on the path toward college and for those who have dropped out of high school, not many programs focus on youth who are neither excelling nor being left behind. These youth are still in school and earning average grades, but it’s not clear that they will further their education and attain gainful employment.

One organization that does reach out to these youth is Urban Alliance, headquartered in Washington, DC. Its high school internship program serves “C-level” high school seniors in distressed communities in DC, Baltimore, Northern Virginia, and Chicago. These youth face uncertain futures; they are likely to graduate high school, but after that, their paths are unclear. Urban Alliance intervenes in their lives at a critical time, offering them training, case management and mentoring, and a paid internship at one of the organization’s employer partners.

Through our process study and baseline findings from the six-year, randomized controlled trial impact study of the program, we’ve identified five promising ways youth employment programs can help disadvantaged youth transition to higher education and employment:

  1. Offer both classroom-based training and experiential learning. This combination teaches skills that will help youth navigate future workplaces, classrooms, and areas of their personal lives.
  2. Even if most of the program is devoted to work or job training, emphasize how important higher education is to opening up future employment opportunities and boosting earnings. This can be done through program messaging, one-on-one conversations, and time devoted to education planning.
  3. Consider offering mentoring in more than one context, for instance through both a mentor at an internship or job site and a case manager at the program site. Many believe that a key to success for at-risk youth is having a caring adult in their lives who can help guide them, long-term. Two caring adults may be even better.
  4. Take advantage of schools’ capability to conduct outreach and recruitment and employers’ capability to provide youth with a meaningful internship experience. By playing an intermediary role, programs can relieve schools of a task for which they may be ill-suited, while enabling employers to deal directly with a responsive organization that can provide interns with a beginning set of skills.
  5. Choose employers carefully. Employers should be willing to welcome disadvantaged youth and negotiate their issues with the program’s help, rather than dismissing youth with a “one strike and you’re out” policy. Further, finding corporate or nonprofit employers that can pay youth for their work will help the program become more sustainable.

Several nonprofits are now looking to link youth to work and postsecondary schooling. For an expanded look at how the Urban Alliance model in particular is helping youth, stay tuned for two future reports detailing findings about the program’s impacts.

Photo: A mentor and his protege in Georgia. (AP Photo/Gene Blythe)


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Research Areas Workforce
Tags Employment Workforce development Children's health and development Economic well-being Labor force Schooling Unemployment and unemployment insurance Work supports Youth employment and training Youth development
Policy Centers Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center