The Future of Work for Opportunity Youth

Opportunity youth comprise a large share of the nearly five million 16-24 year olds out of school and out of work across the U.S. The group has one of the least secure footholds in the evolving structure of employment. Not only do these young people lack jobs; many also lack the training and credentials to work in the fastest-growing fields, as well as a social network that readily connect them to jobs. What they don’t lack: drive and flexibility.

Recently, leaders from philanthropy, city government, community colleges and the nonprofit sector gathered at the JobsFirstNYC Forum to reflect upon the challenges facing opportunity youth. They decided to participate in an exploration of the issue “from the ground up.”

A couple of key questions introduced at the forum: How can leaders best tap into and direct that drive and flexibility toward job and career skill development, without locking young workers into specific paths? What lessons have emerged from the previous twelve years of effort surrounding the development of partnerships between the regional job networks involving community colleges and employers?

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The conditions in New York City for people just entering the workforce indicate daunting challenges, and those challenges exist in cities of all sizes. Ten years ago, on average, young adults worked less and spent more time in school. However, less-educated young workers found it harder to progress out of the lowest-paying jobs. Among the 18-24 year old population, nearly twice as many African Americans as whites, and 1.5 times as many Latinx, were unemployed in 2010 (with similar ratios persisting in 2015). The city saw a significant increase in the proportion of out-of-school, out-of-work youth – many of whom had lost their jobs– as jobs became scarce.

The joint JobsFirstNYC-Community Service Society report from March 2018, Barriers to Entry, provides an updated though still concerning picture of the conditions facing opportunity youth. Most dramatically, updated census figures show 50,000 fewer 18-24 year olds living in the city, apparently due to the rising cost of living and rents for this age group. Many of those in this category were “young people of Puerto Rican backgrounds, young adult parents, and young adult immigrants.” More young adults said they were working, though mostly in part-time jobs and with little prospect of wage growth. The significant portion of young parents in the population suggests that a policy shift to universal child care might prove one of the most impactful potential policy shifts. And overall, New York City, like many others, lacks long-term on-ramps and support capacity for opportunity youth.

As in many other cities, “race and ethnicity remain another strong driver of out-of-school, out-of-work status. Despite declines across racial and ethnic subgroups since 2010, black and Latinx young adults remain more than twice as likely as whites and Asians to be neither in school, nor working.” In addition, significant disparities exist in who attends two-year and four-year colleges and who has access to more advanced credentials.

With these conditions in mind, forum participants decided to  look at how to change the publicly-supported workforce development system by better aligning policy, practice, perceptions, funding and institutions. Urban Institute Affiliated Scholar Ananda Martin-Caughey argued that increasing collaboration and strengthening relationships constitute the most promising steps toward sustainability. Representatives of local philanthropies and a network leader confirmed the importance of developing strong backbone organizations, engaging employers and developing high-level connections in community colleges and other institutions.

Meanwhile, a review of the experience of three regional young adult employment networks in New York City highlighted the steps to increasing jobs and training equitably. Elements included working with existing Community Boards to enhance partnerships, improving community college preparation, adding stay-in-college supports including negotiated office space for nonprofit advisory staff at community colleges, and streamlining points of contact for both employers and youth jobseekers. And, in one manifestation of an industry-specific “sectoral strategy” for young adults, a broad partnership produced the Career Network Healthcare program. The program, which operates in conjunction with Montefiore Medical Center, offers a 13-week experiential learning/externship program as an “on-ramp.”

In keeping with the lessons presented at the forum last month, JobsFirstNYC recommends : 1) investing in career pathways to support upskilling and training for young adults in low-wage jobs; 2) tightening linkages between high school and college students on the one hand, and employers and credentials on the other; and 3) supporting neighborhood partnerships as the surest way to meet young people where they live, and guide them toward better jobs.

At the policy level, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Disconnected Youth Task Force provides a forum to develop more such “Future of Work” on-ramps for the remaining 136,000 opportunity youth in New York, many of whom face steep barriers to solid entry to the labor market. In addition, JobsFirstNYC calls for further study, to develop a deeper understanding of specific subgroups within the out-of-school, out-of-work population to target investments more effectively.  All told, these policy and research recommendations for the nation’s largest city also suggest directions for cities of all sizes addressing the future of work for opportunity youth.


Andy Moore small About the Author: Andrew Moore is the director of Youth and Young Adult Connections in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.