Employment and Jobs

Young adult unemployment is a systemic problem that needs systemic solutions

March 7, 2016  • Maureen Conway


The Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program and JobsFirstNYC, recently released a report, “Optimizing Talent: The Promise and the Perils of Adapting Sectoral Strategies for Young Workers,” on ways to connect young adults with better jobs. Read below to learn how organizations are using sectoral strategies to address young adult underemployment.

Young people today face a tough job market. Many, especially those from poor communities, are struggling to find work. An estimated one in seven young adults in the US is out of school and not working. And the recent recession has exacerbated existing racial disparities in employment for young adults: 20 percent of Latinos between 18 and 24, and 30 percent of African-Americans are unemployed.

For those that find work, too often they find positions that are less than ideal, with low wages, no benefits, poor supervision, and irregular hours and schedules. And the difficult connection to work that young adults experience can have lasting effects, such as long-term unemployment, or employment in similarly low-quality positions.

Many organizations are focused on improving young adults’ access to higher education. Their efforts are important, but they are sadly insufficient to address the mounting young adult employment crisis. Young people need more options in post-secondary education, more opportunities to gain skills outside of education institutions, and more access to jobs that can lead to economic stability for themselves and their families. And they cannot do it alone. A diverse group of people — in nonprofits, business, government, and philanthropy — must work together to provide these options.

How can diverse stakeholders collaborate to improve economic opportunities for young adults? The answer may lie, in part, in an approach that workforce development practitioners have been using for years: sector strategies, which take a systems-based (or holistic) look at workforce development.

This approach is crucial because there are complex systems that affect workers’ prospects in the labor market — the hiring and employment practices of major employers and industries; the supports and services available from educational institutions, nonprofits, and government agencies; government regulations and funding streams; and philanthropic resources, to name a few. Often led by workforce development organizations, initiatives using “sector strategies” evaluate these systems, identify opportunities for change and collaboration, and bring all relevant leaders — in nonprofits, business, government, and philanthropy — to the table to expand economic opportunities for workers.

There are many reasons for diverse stakeholders to collaborate on sector strategies. Workforce development organizations — including nonprofits and community colleges — see the potential for sector strategies to benefit the students and job seekers they work with. Additionally, sector strategies appeal to businesses. Not only can sector strategies help businesses hire a better-prepared workforce; they can also help them improve employee engagement, reduce turnover, and raise worker productivity, as the quality of jobs offered to employees improves. In other words, sector strategies can help workforce development practitioners and businesses raise the floor and build ladders for workers.

We are beginning to see the potential for this approach to benefit young adult workers. A new report, published jointly by the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program andJobsFirstNYC, describes how sectoral initiatives can help young workers through their emphasis on strong connections between employees and employers. This connection can help young workers access job leads and interviews, work experience, and internships, opportunities that are particularly important for disadvantaged young people who typically lack the employment networks that their more advantaged peers have.

Of course, it would be difficult for local sectoral initiatives alone to completely solve the problem of youth unemployment in the United States, particularly given limited funding, and knowledge of how to implement complex sector strategies. Nonetheless, local sectoral initiatives may inform a nationwide response to youth unemployment. Each one provides us with a better understanding of relationships between workers and businesses, and inspires ideas for how to leverage systems to make a change.

Young adults face immense challenges accessing good quality employment. But they are not to blame for the tough job market. We must address systemic problems with systemic solutions in order to create meaningful and lasting economic opportunities for young adults.

Maureen Conway is the Vice President for Policy Programs at the Aspen Institute and Executive Director of the Institute’s Economic Opportunities Program (EOP). For more information on this topic, read the related report “Connecting Young Adults to Employment: Results from a National Survey of Service Providers” written by Ranita Jain with Maureen Conway and Vickie Choitz, and published by the Workforce Strategies Initiative, led by the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program.