Dec. 8, 2021
Youth apprenticeships – like most youth-serving opportunities – deliver programs to young people, but rarely engage them authentically in the design of those opportunities. This is a missed opportunity to ensure youth-serving programs acknowledge and address the needs and interests of their participants to serve them effectively and equitably. Centering youth voice in program design in deliberate, authentic ways can also be an empowering experience for young people, helping them develop leadership skills and learn strategies to advocate for themselves and their peers.
To support programs’ efforts to engage youth voice in the design of youth apprenticeship, New America’s Partnership to Advance Youth Apprenticeship (PAYA), launched the Youth Apprentice Voice Design Sprint in summer 2021. Using a structured co-design process, New America partnered with community-based organizations to engage youth perspectives to improve programs’ recruitment strategies to more equitably reach and attract students of color and special populations.
The Co-Design Process
Co-design approaches the delivery of public programs and services based on an equal and reciprocal relationship between program providers and program users. More intensive than community engagement or consultation, co-design is a process of co-creating alongside a target audience to ensure that the results of the design effort meet their needs. Co-design was an effective tool to test out an entirely different approach to program development, while engaging members of the PAYA Network and finding new ways to address inequity in youth apprenticeship recruitment.
The Youth Apprentice Voice Design Sprint took place over ten weeks from July to September 2021 and engaged teams from Bemidji Career Academies (Bemidji, MN), GPS Education Partners (Twin Cities, MN), and the Southwest Milwaukee Consortium (Milwaukee, WI). All three are partnerships of educators, employers, and advocates working to provide work-based learning opportunities for youth. Participating teams included at least two youth members and received mini-grants to compensate team members—including the youth—for their time and participation, and to recognize all participants as equal agents in the co-design process.
With guidance from New America, each team led a multi-stage co-design process focused on engaging stakeholders in their respective communities to understand the experiences, emotions, values, and motivations of the communities as a strategy for developing greater awareness and empathy, especially towards students least well served by existing program recruitment strategies. After ten weeks of work in their communities, the teams came together for a final culminating event during which each team presented the results of their co-design effort, including the barriers to equitable recruitment identified in their communities, and recommendations for improving present youth apprentice recruitment strategies.
Youth as Co-Design Agents
Youth took on various leadership roles in the co-design process, from designing school wide surveys to conducting interviews with business partners, technical college faculty and high school counselors. According to one community partner, the youth on his team, “brought in questions that we wouldn’t even think of.” The diverse perspectives provided by youth gave the teams insight into topics such as social media engagement and working as a young person.
Among these insights were the barriers preventing young adults from participating in apprenticeship opportunities, faced by both youth team members and youth community members engaged through the design process. There were some universal barriers such as transportation difficulties for apprentices or balancing caregiving and working, while others were unique to each community. One team noticed that American Indians were underrepresented in their apprenticeship program, relative to their enrollment in the school district, which was only exacerbated by a lack of internet access in the area, making social media a less reliable solution for recruitment. Having used social media to reach students in the past, that team will explore better ways to leverage it as well as other means of engaging students.
Another team highlighted the limited access of information about apprenticeship opportunities as a barrier, with one participant describing “a lack of both sides [employers and educators] talking to students, so that everyone isn’t equally informed about the opportunities and options in front of them that may benefit their skillsets or interest. They either don’t have that knowledge, or it isn’t being presented in platforms that properly reach them. It’s been a recurring issue since I left school to now.” That information gap resulted from employers not seeing the value in youth apprenticeship and some educators unintentionally “gatekeeping” information due to their own biases and expectations about which students should (and should not) participate in youth apprenticeship opportunities. Empathy interviews conducted by the youth on this team revealed that career talks too closely resemble regular classroom instruction and they heard from current high school students that they were not made aware of all their potential opportunities to make an informed decision about their futures.
Youth team members were equally influential in proposing strategies to address recruitment challenges identified through the teams’ engagement efforts. Improvement ideas ranged from solutions like creating a 2021-2022 Youth Apprenticeship T-Shirt to raise awareness, to in-depth designs for interactive company floor plans to give prospective youth apprentices a better understanding of what goes on in the workplace. By sharing these challenges, ideas, and opportunities the teams were able to learn from each other despite the differences in their approaches, communities, and populations that they serve.
For the youth involved this was an empowering experience. Some expressed explicit interest in leadership roles that will allow them to continue to do work like this, while others said that they felt like they had never been part of an adult group where their voice mattered before. For the team leads and wider partnerships it changed the way they thought problem-solving. Each of the groups expressed an interest in continued youth engagement. Two groups had several more meetings planned to fully develop their recruitment strategies, and another is hoping to create a Youth Advisory Council to make youth involvement a permanent fixture of their program. By the end of that final two-hour session, it became clear that this 10-week experience represented just a small fraction of what youth can do when given the proper platform.
Reflections on the Design Sprint
Centering youth voice in the design of youth-serving programs is an important strategy for designing equitable recruitment strategies. New America selected co-design for the Youth Apprentice Design Sprint to experiment with an approach that elevated young adults as equal agents in the design and delivery of programs meant to serve them. The Sprint yielded valuable learning and cooperation within and across the place-based teams and equipped them with concrete strategies for authentically engaging youth perspectives in the design and implementation of their youth apprenticeship programming in the future.
As conveners of the sprint, we also learned a great deal about what it takes to facilitate a co-design process effectively. To support other organizations’ efforts to center user voice in design processes—and to improve our own efforts to do so in the future—we share the following takeaways:
- Encourage Youth Voice: Give youth as many opportunities to participate as possible. Encourage youth to attend check-ins and require participation during final presentations. Make sure that key meeting times are during times that are accessible to a youth who have obligations such as school. Compensating youth for their time also goes a long way when encouraging their participation.
- Balance Structure & Flexibility: Co-design processes exists within a complex balance of structure and flexibility. Participants need guidance, but enough flexibility to adapt the process to their team and community needs, and this balance may look different in different communities. A neutral convener can be an important sounding board for the teams as they define their individual challenges and can facilitate the exchange of ideas between teams.
- Establish Clear Expectations for Teams: Establishing common and clear expectations can go a long way in making sure groups follow the co-design process and generate concrete deliverables. In the future PAYA would take steps to re-emphasize guidelines throughout the process.
- Ground Conversations in Equity: The goal of the co-design process is to reach and effectively serve underserved populations. Facilitators must be prepared to encourage teams to define what “underserved” means in the context of their community, have continuous conversation about those populations, and think about solutions that include them if a team’s focus widens or shifts away from this core goal.
- Look Beyond the Sprint: Facilitators should encourage teams to think about how they can continue to apply youth voice after the sprint. One of the goals of this process is to change the way that programs approach design in the long-term so it’s important to get teams thinking about how they can continuously involve youth voice.
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