May 18, 2020
Generation Z—the teens and early-twenty-somethings now in high school and college—will soon enter the most inhospitable job market since the Great Depression. Already, the unemployment rate for Gen Z workers has surpassed 25%, with more than 5 million Americans under the age of 24 filing for unemployment in just four weeks in April.
Like the Millenials, whose working lives began in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), Generation Z will soon be the second consecutive generation of young Americans to launch their careers in an unstable, uncertain economy. The long-term consequences for Millenials were brutal and lasting. Youth unemployment remained persistently high years into recovery, resulting in record levels of student debt and underemployment that have made it difficult for this generation of Americans—now in their late 20’s and 30’s---to accumulate assets, build wealth, and secure a foothold in the American economy.
This time we can and must do better for Gen Z—not just for their sake, but for the sake of the economy we all share. Federal and state investment to stimulate the economy must include strategies that ensure youth can participate in the recovery, while earning the skills and credentials they’ll need to thrive in the future economy and whatever shocks to it lie ahead. Access to paid work experience and affordable postsecondary education are critical building blocks for economic success, particularly for young adults from low-income backgrounds. COVID-19 has exacerbated existing barriers to accessing both and further jeopardizes the prospects for mobility, wealth, and well-being of yet another generation of American youth.
Come fall, millions of students who planned to enroll or return to college will defer those plans to take the first jobs they find—likely temporary, low-wage positions—that allow them to contribute to family expenses or continue in caretaking roles they’ve assumed during the pandemic. Even those without such responsibilities will be wary about taking on debt to fund degrees that cannot guarantee jobs in this uncertain economy. Whatever their situation, there will be few easy decisions and fewer sure options.
Youth apprenticeship, which combines paid, on-the-job work experience with no-debt college coursework, is a promising solution to address the unique set of challenges young adults now face. Youth apprentices work part-time, which allows them to earn an immediate wage but does not put them in direct competition with adult workers for family-sustaining incomes. This experience, paired with a structured mentorship component and related college coursework that leads to industry-valued credentials and degrees, ensures youth apprentices are ready for well-paying work in the near-term and are prepared to grow into successful careers in the future.
In the Great Recession, youth apprenticeship helped countries like Germany and Switzerland maintain the lowest youth unemployment levels among OECD countries and avoid the destabilizing effects of youth disconnection experienced by some of their near neighbors. On a much smaller scale, youth apprenticeship programs in the U.S.—and the public-private partnerships that support them—are already serving critical crisis-response needs. As schools closed and many employers shuttered in the early months of 2020, the intermediary organizations that coordinate youth apprenticeship programs began connecting apprentices and their families to relief resources, smoothing transitions to virtual learning, and facilitating safe virtual and in-person work arrangements. In these and countless other ways, these partnerships are minimizing disruption and accelerating the pace at which young people, employers, and communities are adapting to rapid economic change.
The magnitude of this crisis demands youth apprenticeship be at the center of a strategy for supporting youth—one that is more clear, more coherent, and more robust than in past recoveries. As the examples above make clear, there is value in building upon and sustaining existing youth apprenticeship efforts. But the structure of youth apprenticeship can also be incorporated into a range of economic interventions to more effectively address the needs of young adults. Already, we see opportunities to embed youth apprenticeship within crucial recovery strategies, including:
Back-to-Work Strategies for Critical Economic Sectors: Youth apprenticeship offers a structured, gradual strategy for recruiting and onboarding entry-level talent that can help businesses seeking a scaffolded approach to rebuilding their workforces across a range of roles in IT, healthcare, advanced manufacturing, financial services, and education.
Public Employment & Service Programs: Innovative state agencies, municipal departments, and local school districts have established successful youth apprenticeship programs to train a wide range of professionals, including IT staff and early childhood educators. Public employment and service pathways can play a key role in the economic recovery. With federal and state support, additional agencies can learn from these successes and launch youth apprenticeship programs that address significant public workforce needs, while providing much-needed opportunity to young adults in their communities. Future stimulus funding may also expand support for existing youth-serving programs such Youth Build and Americorps. Youth apprenticeship could provide valuable structure to increase the impact of these investments, too.
Investments in Place-Based Programs & Capacity: Youth apprenticeship requires cooperation between employers, education systems, and the workforce system. These crucial community-building organizations will face increased demand in the months ahead, even as the state and local budgets that support them plummet. Youth apprenticeship, which aligns the resources of these institutions in pursuit of a shared goal, can be a strategy to share risk across public and private actors, while developing partnerships that lead to greater efficiencies for all involved. The institutions—and the communities they serve—will be stronger and more resilient as a result.
Recessions hit young people especially hard, but recoveries need not overlook them. The U.S. economy can ill-afford another generation whose professional and economic potential has been hamstrung by a recession and inadequate government and private sector response. Youth apprenticeship offers an effective near-term solution with long-term benefits—not only for the apprentices themselves, but also for the employers and communities whose future prosperity will rely on them.
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