The United States is in the midst of a youth unemployment crisis, which carries serious consequences for young people and their families. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing unemployment challenges—especially for Black and Latino communities, who already experienced structural barriers to attaining jobs—and has further underscored the importance of building strong pathways to employment.
Urban Alliance is one program that strives to build a diverse next-generation workforce by providing employment experiences to young people from underresourced communities, predominantly young people of color. It offers high school seniors workplace skills training, exposure to professional work and mentorship, support from dedicated case managers, and continued access to resources and support for program alumni through its internship program.
In a previous Urban Institute evaluation of Urban Alliance, we found the program improved young people’s comfort with soft and hard skills two years after enrolling in the program. Although the evaluation did not show effects on employment one or two years after high school graduation, future analysis will explore longer-term effects.
In a rare opportunity for the field, the Urban Institute was commissioned to conduct a replication evaluation of the program to provide further evidence of the extent of its effectiveness. Our recently released baseline report for this evaluation includes firsthand reflections from young people on Urban Alliance programming that offer several insights into what may drive program outcomes.
1. Young people believed supportive adults helped set them up for future success
Evidence shows that surrounding young people with adults invested in their success has long-term benefits. Urban Alliance aims to provide young people with opportunities to engage and develop relationships with several adults, including Urban Alliance staff who provide skills training and a mentor at their internship jobsites who assigns tasks and supervises their workplace performance.
Young people we spoke with appreciated how available staff were and that staff showed deep understanding about the interests and struggles young people may experience. Though the quality of mentorship young people received from their job mentors varied, in the best cases, job mentors helped them develop skills essential for the workplace. One young person valued learning how to build relationships with people from their mentor, and another appreciated life lessons and honest conversations about “how the world actually works.” Some job mentors also helped their interns refine their post–high school plans. For instance, one young person decided to enroll as an architecture major after learning more about the field from their mentor who had received an architecture degree.
Beyond developing skills and discussing future plans, young people found value in simply having supportive adults invested in their success. Eight in 10 young people we surveyed during their internships had plans to keep in touch with their mentors after graduating from high school. As one young person mentioned about their mentor, “They literally sat me down and said that they really care about me. They really want to keep in touch with me regardless of whatever happens.”
2. Young people appreciated training and developing workplace skills
Urban Alliance updates its trainings so the content is always relevant to the skills needed to succeed in today’s workplace. Young people appreciated that the content was directly translatable to the professional workplace, including interview preparation, resume building, and advice on how to act and dress in a professional environment. One young person reflected on interviews they participated in through Urban Alliance with local employers: “I can say that it was a great experience getting to know what companies actually do and what they saw themselves doing.” Young people felt Urban Alliance’s professional development training filled in a gap they didn’t have exposure to at school or at home. As another young person summarized, through Urban Alliance, “They’re giving you these steps to be out there in life by yourself and already be prepared.”
3. Young people recognized the value of early professional work experience
The Urban Alliance internships offered an opportunity to work in professional environments—environments to which students might not otherwise have had access—such as large hotel chains. Young people we spoke with appreciated the opportunity to “gain professionalism” and “improve teamwork skills” and communication skills. Young people were aware of the benefit prior work experience has on seeking future jobs and noted that their involvement in the Urban Alliance internship would “give [them] a boost” and “stand out in any job applications.”
Participants also found these internships were helpful in determining their career direction. Nearly 9 in 10 surveyed young people thought their internships were either very or somewhat relevant to their future careers. Young people noted the internship helped them “know a little bit more what jobs would be like.” One participant specifically explained, “It’ll help me decide what I’m going to do in college, if I want to follow through with what I’ve been passionate about or not.”
These voices provide important insights for program practitioners and funders of youth employment and training programming. Centering their voices can show firsthand what works to keep young people engaged and ensure they’re set up for long-term success.