Adapting to Connect Young People to Opportunity

We Will Have to Do It in a Post-Pandemic World

By Patrice Cromwell, The Annie E. Casey Foundation

“Adapt.” That’s what we’ve been advis­ing young peo­ple for years — since the Great Reces­sion, real­ly — as they have sought footholds in an Amer­i­can econ­o­my increas­ing­ly defined by pre­car­i­ty. It’s a refrain that echoed through the first year of the COVID-19 cri­sis as class­es went online, jobs van­ished and even the most care­ful­ly laid plans fell apart for what is now the pan­dem­ic gen­er­a­tion. ​“Adapt,” we said.

But are we ask­ing the same of our­selves? Gov­er­nors, school super­in­ten­dents, employ­ers and phil­an­thropy: Have we adapt­ed to design edu­ca­tion and career path­ways that lead young peo­ple to oppor­tu­ni­ty? The chal­lenge in these unprece­dent­ed times is not just to shore up these oppor­tu­ni­ty path­ways, but for us to expand them and build new and sup­port­ive on-ramps. We are in a moment of enor­mous oppor­tu­ni­ty to dri­ve change — with the promise of addi­tion­al fed­er­al fund­ing for post-sec­ondary edu­ca­tion and work-based learn­ing. We need to invest in equi­ty-focused school and work strate­gies to sup­port the suc­cess of young people.

Youth and young adults are endur­ing extra­or­di­nary lev­els of dis­con­nec­tion from oppor­tu­ni­ty right now. Sur­veys in 2020 and the first part of 2021 showed that between 50% and 60% of 18- to 24-year-olds had lost house­hold employ­ment income as the pan­dem­ic unfold­ed, often because youth are over­rep­re­sent­ed in low-wage indus­tries and fields such as retail and hos­pi­tal­i­ty most affect­ed by social dis­tanc­ing prac­tices. More­over, there was only mod­est improve­ment from August 2020, when eight in 10 house­holds with post­sec­ondary-edu­ca­tion plans report­ed can­cel­ing or chang­ing them, and March 2021, when the fig­ure was still sev­en in 10.

Even before the pan­dem­ic, 8% of Lati­no, 10% of Black and 11% of Native Amer­i­can youth ages 16 – 19 were not in school and not work­ing com­pared to 5% of white youth. While we may not have defin­i­tive data on how dif­fer­ent racial and eth­nic groups have fared dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, we know anec­do­tal­ly that young peo­ple of col­or are fac­ing some of the steep­est obstacles.

These data are daunt­ing, but not dis­cour­ag­ing. What they do for us is bear out the need to adapt: Insti­tu­tions and sys­tems sim­ply must cre­ate more sup­port­ive envi­ron­ments where old­er youth can access the ben­e­fits and rel­e­vance of edu­ca­tion — like in high-qual­i­ty appren­tice­ships — and are sup­port­ed to suc­ceed as they pur­sue opportunity.

Prin­ci­ples for Work­ing With Young People

The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Learn and Earn to Achieve Poten­tial (LEAP)™ ini­tia­tive was at work in this area well before the pan­dem­ic began and has iden­ti­fied some core prin­ci­ples for increas­ing engage­ment and per­sis­tence in employ­ment and edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties for young peo­ple, includ­ing those involved in the child wel­fare and juve­nile jus­tice sys­tems. Three of these prin­ci­ples have emerged as essen­tial to sup­port­ing the young peo­ple who are search­ing for ways to thrive in the after­math of the pandemic:

Youth need help meet­ing basic needs and nav­i­gat­ing systems

The edu­ca­tion piece alone isn’t enough. Con­sid­er this: Even by the sum­mer of 2021, as the econ­o­my had begun to improve, one in sev­en peo­ple ages 18 – 24 said they had lit­tle or no con­fi­dence they’d be able to make their next rent or mort­gage pay­ment and one in 10 didn’t have enough to eat in the past week. These youth are urgent­ly seek­ing real avenues to sup­ports, income, and careers. Fos­ter­ing deep­er stu­dent con­nec­tions to sup­port­ive adults and peers, such as through peer nav­i­ga­tors, men­tors, and on-the-job super­vi­sors, may make edu­ca­tion­al envi­ron­ments more sup­port­ive of and rel­e­vant to them in this com­pli­cat­ed moment. For exam­ple, the Coali­tion for Respon­sive Com­mu­ni­ty Devel­op­ment in Los Ange­les has co-locat­ed edu­ca­tion and work­force ser­vices for youth in sub­si­dized hous­ing so young peo­ple can con­nect with adults to access sup­ports to help them stay in school and per­sist with paid work expe­ri­ences, which were adapt­ed to vir­tu­al intern­ships dur­ing the pandemic.

Inclu­sive, equi­ty-cen­tered envi­ron­ments are vital

Orga­ni­za­tion­al audits and oth­er process­es can iden­ti­fy bar­ri­ers and address inequities, informed by data that are dis­ag­gre­gat­ed by race, gen­der, sys­tem involve­ment, and par­ent­ing sta­tus. Pub­lic sys­tems and work­place cul­tures that pri­or­i­tize equi­ty, pro­mote inclu­sion, and val­ue all racial and eth­nic back­grounds are a must.

Young peo­ple them­selves should have a say

One young moth­er shared a sto­ry about how she bare­ly made it through her post­sec­ondary class­es because teach­ers would not adjust test-tak­ing times. She often had to bring her child in a stroller to an exam or pause her edu­ca­tion to earn mon­ey for food or dia­pers. Inte­grat­ing young peo­ple into lead­er­ship and deci­sion-mak­ing process­es enables them to iden­ti­fy solu­tions to the bar­ri­ers to suc­cess we can’t see — and ensure that such solu­tions are ground­ed in equi­ty and expe­ri­ence. Work­ing with young peo­ple, col­leges, and non­prof­its around the state, for exam­ple, the Nebras­ka Chil­dren and Fam­i­lies Foun­da­tion has helped col­leges inte­grate fam­i­ly-focused sup­ports for fos­ter and par­ent­ing youth such as flex­i­ble sched­ul­ing, fam­i­ly hous­ing, and on-cam­pus childcare.

The pan­dem­ic has cloud­ed the visions many young peo­ple had for their futures as con­trib­u­tors to our econ­o­my, our soci­ety, and fam­i­lies of their own. You can bet they’ll seek to adapt to the new cir­cum­stances. Tomor­row can be as bright as the next gen­er­a­tion deserves if state and local gov­ern­ments, employ­ers, school dis­tricts, phil­an­thropy and oth­er stake­hold­ers work just as dili­gent­ly to adapt in all the ways that we can.

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