Eric was a 17-year old kid with adult problems. He was about to be a father for the first time, wasn’t working, didn’t have a high school diploma, and had no idea how to afford the child support payments that would soon be rolling in. This was also Eric’s first time looking for work. My job at that time was to get Eric employed – any job– and to do so quick, fast, and in a hurry. I found Eric a part-time job at a local small business, but it didn’t last long. Finding a patient employer who was willing to take a leap of faith on a young person with Eric’s profile was a defeating activity. I knew deep down that Eric needed a more intensive intervention than what I could provide. Even worse, the confusion, fear, and regret in Eric’s eyes was a telltale sign that he knew too.
Today the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released new report aimed squarely at a common challenge to growing youth job training: employers first need to see work-based learning as a way to help their business. “Work-based Learning for Youth at Risk: Getting Employers on Board,” was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education and lays out several policy tools for motivating employers to train more young people who are disconnected – and at risk of detachment - from school and work.
More than 5.5 million Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 are neither in school nor working. Who are these young people? They’re commonly referred to as opportunity youth, a term that, according to Patrick Sims, “speaks to the potential value they could add to their communities if they were reconnected to education and employment opportunities.” Opportunity youth are more likely to receive public assistance, have a disability, lack health insurance, and be a parent. They’re typically young men. And, while African Americans and Hispanics are more susceptible to becoming an opportunity youth than Whites and Asian Americans, data shows that nationally that White opportunity youth outnumber any other race and ethnicity.
The OECD reports that work-based learning – a structured training method of completing job tasks to build occupational and job skills - is an effective way for opportunity youth to gain skills that employers will value. Work-based learning is a motivational experience that engages the minds and hands of a learner in a way that classroom time alone doesn’t. It’s also proven to have positive benefits to society such as reduced incarceration and mortality rates. Stuck without a clear way to advance economically, opportunity youth are vulnerable to prolonged periods of unemployment. They need more occasions to become self-sufficient and pathways to good jobs, such as work-based learning, that don’t necessarily have to pass through traditional education systems.
A challenge to work-based learning – perhaps the biggest obstacle – is finding willing companies to train young people on the job. Employers that will host work-based learning programs like, apprenticeship and internships, are hard to come by.
Researchers have identified a host of reasons why more businesses don’t embrace work-based learning such the extra effort needed to supervise younger workers, lack of youths maturity and readiness and high turnover of young workers. Employers want job ready workers who can help them meet their business goals from day one. There are companies who will offer work-based learning out of a sense of social responsibility. For many companies the task of training opportunity youth is immense. It will take more than a social compact to motivate these employers.
What will compel more businesses to roll out the welcome mat to young people who still have room to grow? The OECD lays out several policy recommendations including:
1. Employers need to know that training will not be a loss leader. The paper notes that reducing program costs through financial incentives such as tax credits or some form of direct subsidy can stimulate employer participation. An ideal incentive will have financial benefits that break-even with or outweigh the training costs.
2. Employers need assurance that young people will be productive from the start. The report states that there is evidence that disconnected youth have weaker academic competencies and job skills than their peers. The solution should be to prepare young people before training starts. For example, pre-apprenticeship training that improves academic, technical, and work skills gets young people ready for the rigor of an apprenticeship program.
3. Employers need to know that young people will continue to be supported throughout training. Ongoing skill development and readiness training will improve retention rates and lead to successful completion. Remedial courses, mentoring, coaching are ways to help young people stay involved, especially through challenges.
The report does briefly mention the need to help companies build their capacity to work with opportunity youth. For example, supporting training delivery and preparing worksite supervisors. This is a good role for community colleges and community based non-profits who are serve opportunity youth. Letting businesses know that they do not have to go it alone is important. Businesses that are supported through challenges will be more willing to continue offering future training.
The number of young people who are aimless and lacking a clear way to connect to meaningful work is troubling. It’s crucial for opportunity youth to develop skills that employers value and that will earn them a well-paying job. Work-based learning is an effective training tool for opportunity youth but it’s not yet available at the scale we need it to be. The movement to grow work-based learning will stagnate without more business community involvement.
It is worthy for the employers who view youth job training as their social responsibility to hold onto this view and continue the good work. It’s also imperative to devise policies and practices that align work-based learning goals with businesses objectives. The OECD report provides several clear policies for growing youth work-based learning while helping employers with their bottom lines. But, will their recommendations be enough to move more employers to yes? The answer is unknown. But, taking on the challenge of helping employers see how work-based learning can help their business is a step in the right direction.