Employment and Jobs

Building Good Jobs for Young Adults: Lessons from Generation Work

June 6, 2023  • Ranita Jain & Maureen Conway

As businesses, workforce practitioners, and policymakers continue to grapple with economic recovery from a pandemic that has spotlighted and exacerbated inequities in the labor market, it’s clear that we must all reexamine our ways of working. We must intentionally work to better position young front-line workers — who provide the effort and talent we need to fuel our economy — and ensure security and mobility for all members of the workforce. This is especially evident for young workers, especially young adults of color, who remain among those most significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic recession. These young adults are navigating changing work environments and experiencing significant disruptions in employment, education, and training. More than ever, young workers of color need equitable, good fit employment opportunities.

That’s why, in 2016, the Annie E. Casey Foundation launched Generation Work, an initiative to connect more of America’s young adults with meaningful employment by changing the way public and private systems prepare them for jobs. Partners in five sites across the nation — Cleveland; Hartford, Connecticut; Indianapolis; Philadelphia; and Seattle — are working to align education, employment, and support services to help young people develop the skills required to succeed in the working world, link them with employers, and increase advancement and earning opportunities.

As a national partner for the first phase Generation Work, the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program has engaged with local partners working directly with employers to identify and cultivate good fit jobs for young adults. Good fit jobs can serve multiple purposes, including jobs that:

  • Address a young adult’s immediate income needs.
  • Provide valuable work experience for young adults who have never had a job.
  • Present opportunities for young adults to learn about workplace behavioral norms and expectations and apply communication and conflict resolution skills learned in training.
  • Help young adults explore their strengths and interests, build relationships, and expand their social and professional networks.

Ultimately, good fit jobs can support learning, skill development, and a trajectory toward a sustainable livelihood. Partners participating in the Generation Work initiative proactively engaged with employers to support equity and inclusion in the workplace. We’ve seen how this work shifts employer mindsets and preconceived biases around hiring young people, especially young adults of color and young adults who haven’t followed a conventional path in education and work.

Job Developers Must Communicate Practices that Lead to Success

The traditional job developer role should be expanded to include more intensive engagement with businesses on workplace practices that affect young people’s success on the job. Through this engagement, providers understand the nature of available employment opportunities: what jobs pay, whether they offer health insurance and paid time off, how scheduling works, and how safe they are. Additionally, providers gain a better understanding of a business, its workplace environment, and whether a job opportunity would be a good fit for a young adult participant. For employers, conversations may help them reflect upon and identify ways their workplace practices and environment affect retention, business operations, and equity and inclusion in the workplace.

Employers Have a Vital Role To Play in Supporting Young Workers on the Job

This can include ensuring young adults are connected to caring adults at work, provided learning opportunities through work, guided with supportive supervision, and offered schedules that support their income and personal needs. Partners in Generation Work communities used multiple levers to engage employers, including:

  • Leveraging political and financial incentives to influence employer practice change.
  • Cultivating connections between employers and young adults to influence employer practices.
  • Working with employers to change practices from the inside, including how young adults are onboarded, trained, mentored, and supervised at work.

As a result, employers and economic development agencies in Generation Work communities started working differently with workforce organizations. Industry partnerships and anchor employers forged deeper connections with workforce providers, including formalizing agreements to work with organizations on hiring and advancement practices. Local business champions encouraged other employers to provide work-based learning opportunities and consider skills-based hiring methods to recruit young adult workers. Several employers engaged workforce organizations to provide technical assistance on ways to incorporate equitable and inclusive employment practices.

Ingredients for Success: What Is Needed Now

The Generation Work partnership experiences offer valuable insights for practitioners, funders, and policymakers about how to redesign employment systems and structures to reduce inequities and benefit all. These experiences show the need to focus on three key areas:

  1. Deeper engagement with employers. More active and longer-term engagement with employers can encourage reflection on how they can promote an equitable and inclusive workplace, including identification of ways they can better recruit, retain, and advance young workers. It can also be mutually beneficial, offering opportunities for workforce providers to demonstrate their value to employers by lending their expertise, providing problem-solving support, and, in turn, helping shape good fit job opportunities. In Generation Work communities, we have seen employers engage workforce organizations to provide ongoing support services for newly placed employees or to train managers of young workers on ways to support their growth and advancement. Some of these supports include training managers on how to break down tasks, conduct regular check-ins and provide constructive feedback, and coach young adults on how to apply their skills on the job.
  2. Capacity building. Engaging employers around cultivating equitable and inclusive job opportunities is new ground for many workforce organizations. Generation Work partners undertook a range of efforts to better equip workforce professionals to build standing and confidence for deeper engagement with employers about their workplace environment, workplace practices, and employees’ experiences. This included race equity and inclusion trainings to help staff at workforce organizations develop an understanding of the systems and structures that perpetuate racial inequity or that foster equity. This is especially important given the role workforce providers play in helping both young adult constituents and employers address equity and inclusion challenges. Other efforts include supporting a community of practice for front-line workforce staff and the development of practical tools.
  3. Programmatic investments. Policies and investments that promote inclusive, good fit jobs and workplace practices are needed to sustain and advance this critical work. Generation Work partners devoted considerable resources to support the longevity of contact and range of services required to build their own staff capacity, establish and maintain relationships with employers, and engage with young people to help them establish stability and make progress toward longer-term education and career goals. Policymakers and funders can champion public and private long-term workforce funding that adequately provides resources for staff time to develop both deeper and longer-term relationships with employers and new skills to serve them differently. This will help ensure the most diverse generation of workers in US history are equitably prepared for and connected to good job opportunities.


More than ever, young workers need good fit jobs. That’s why @AECFNews launched Generation Work — to connect young adults with meaningful employment through public and private action. Learn more from @RanitaJain1 and @conway_maureen.

The pandemic deepened inequities in the labor market, and young adults of color in particular were significantly impacted. How can we boost opportunity for these workers? @RanitaJain1 and @conway_maureen share insights from Generation Work.

Since the pandemic, young adults have experienced significant disruptions in employment, education, and training. What can businesses, practitioners, and policymakers do to help them navigate a changing work environment?

Through @AECFNews’ Generation Work initiative, organizations align education, employment, and support services so young people can build skills, connect with employers, and increase their advancement and earning opportunities.

Good fit jobs help young adults meet income needs, boost work experience, and build relationships. As a national partner to @AECFNews’ Generation Work initiative, @AspenJobQuality worked with organizations to identify and expand these opportunities.

Generation Work offers valuable lessons on how to redesign employment systems to reduce inequities and benefit all — including focusing on deeper engagement with employers, building capacity, and making programmatic investments.

About the Authors

Ranita Jain is a senior associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Center for Economic Opportunity. Prior to joining the Foundation, Jain served as associate director of research for the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program.

Maureen Conway is a vice president at the Aspen Institute and executive director of the Institute’s Economic Opportunities Program.

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The Economic Opportunities Program advances strategies, policies, and ideas to help low- and moderate-income people thrive in a changing economy. Follow us on social media and join our mailing list to stay up-to-date on publications, blog posts, events, and other announcements.

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