Can social capital promote work readiness in opportunity youth? New study has answers

Boat, A. A., Syvertsen, A. K., & Scales, P. C. (2021). The role of social capital in promoting work readiness among opportunity youth. Children and Youth Services Review, 131, 106270.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest:

  • Measure of America (a Social Science Research council program) discovered that roughly one in nine American youth between sixteen and twenty-four weren’t in school or the workforce before the pandemic.
  • Although their most recent report found a sustained decline in youth disconnected from school and the workforce, they still identified disparities between different groups of young people.
    • Youth living in poverty, who have one or more disabilities, are young mothers, &/or are of color are more likely to be disconnected from school and work.
  • While many of these young people, also known as opportunity youth, are looking for employment opportunities, they face many barriers to make that possible (mental health issues, homelessness, disabilities, lack of resources or connections, etc.).
  • This study assesses how social capital gained from learning opportunities and developmental relationships can increase the work readiness of youth.
  • Findings indicate that learning opportunities were essential for promoting work readiness among youth.
    • It mediated the correlation between youth developmental relationships and growth in work readiness.
  • This text highlights the importance of having more targeting programming models and training.
    • In other words, programs have to go beyond just providing positive and caring relationships. They have to be more targeted to promote growth in youth development.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Social capital is one of the most valuable entry points into the workforce. Yet, large portions of America’s opportunity youth lack the relationships, connections, and resources required to prepare them for work. Programs that foster social capital are one promising avenue for enhancing the work readiness of these youth. The current study examined whether social capital built through developmental relationships and valuable program resources (i.e., goal support and learning opportunities) would result in greater levels of work readiness among 291 youth (age 14–24, 48% female, 83% youth of color), who participated in community wraparound support programs using the common program enhancement model known as Opportunity Reboot. Findings showed that learning opportunities mediated the association between youths’ developmental relationships and growth in work readiness. The study contributes to the literature by providing support for a pathway through which social capital can be built and ultimately strengthen opportunity youths’ work readiness.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

The current study examined the role of relationships and resources—that is, social capital—in promoting the work readiness of opportunity youth. The results showed support for a mediational model in which youths’ strong developmental relationships with case managers was associated with greater learning opportunities which, in turn, was associated with growth in work readiness. This mediation model confirms that the mechanisms by which high-quality relationships exert their influence often are not direct, and that looking only for direct links between strong relationships and positive outcomes may significantly understate their contribution. Developmental relationships were not directly associated with work readiness, but were indirectly, through their effect on the learning opportunities young people experienced because of, and through, that relationship. Similarly, a previous study of how developmental relationships impact educational outcomes found that student–teacher relationships did not directly predict GPA, but did so indirectly through students’ academic motivation (Scales et al., 2019). Likewise, that same indirect mechanism was found in an international sample of youth in five African countries: supportive relationships in an economic development program were linked to gains in youths’ work readiness, which in turn were linked to economic outcomes (e.g., access to savings and credit). Yet, developmental relationships did not directly predict those economic outcomes (Scales, D’Sa, et al., 2020). Future research should continue to examine the pathways through which developmental relationships influence youth outcomes, as examining only direct effects may understate their value.

It is unclear why goal support was not also associated with youth’s work readiness, as it has been previously linked to positive youth outcomes (Hamilton & Hamilton, 2005). The current findings suggest that learning opportunities are more strongly related to work readiness than goal support. It is possible that goal support precedes learning opportunities, such that youth may first need support to identify and set realistic goals before they can successfully engage in learning opportunities (DeMink-Carthew et al., 2017) that strengthen their work readiness. Future research should continue to examine which resources are most useful in strengthening opportunity youths’ work readiness and how these resources may interact and/or inform each other.

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