Back on Track: Building Career Pathways for Low-Income Youth

By Willa Seldon and Debby Bielak

When I [co-author Willa Seldon] was in public high school in Alabama, I didn't rely on my guidance counselor for college or career advice. I was fortunate to have professional parents and siblings and a social network that could provide the connections I needed to find part-time jobs and discuss potential careers. And I had a community of neighbors, church members, and friends who regularly asked about my dreams and progress in school. Although I sometimes found these inquiries annoying, I later realized these conversations were training me--to perform well in school, to be ambitious for my future, and to recognize that my success would be the success of a community, not an individual.

For my part [co-author Debby Bielak], as the daughter of a teacher and a professor, I grew up with the assumption that I would go to college. I would sometimes wander the halls of their buildings after school and talk with their colleagues about where I was thinking of going and what I was considering studying.

If we didn't need guidance counselors, it was because we had a host of other people playing that advisory role and making sure we stayed on track. But far too many low-income youth lack the social networks to provide the guidance, connections, and encouragement they need to succeed. And they can get off track entirely.
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Today, an estimated 5.5 million of the 16- to 24-year-olds in the United States are neither in school nor working. The millions of young people disconnected from school and employment have been called "opportunity youth" for their potential to our communities and economy. For most, career paths are uncertain and so is the journey. Half have been disconnected from work and from school since the age of 16. Forty percent have experienced intergenerational poverty.

In its May 2016 report, "Billion Dollar Bets' to Create Economic Opportunity for Every American," The Bridgespan Group identifies 15 areas in which philanthropy can help restore economic opportunity for low-income Americans. Betting on strong career pathways for youth is one of those areas where potential solutions are bubbling up, but help is needed--and fast--to help low-income youth find a foothold in our economy. Opportunity youth are an important group that may benefit from these new pathways, and in turn, contribute to our economy.

Competencies, Not Diplomas

The fact is, a large number of entry level jobs are unfilled each year. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that, from 2012 to 2022, nearly six million entry-level jobs suitable for young people, even those without a college degree, will be created across a range of industries.

A key to matching opportunity youth with those jobs will be to focus on the skills and aptitudes needed to do a given job--rather than a college degree. This applies to both entry level and non-entry level positions. While diplomas will always be desirable, when companies maintain them as prerequisites for jobs where a diploma is not essential, they screen out many of the youth in the enormous unemployed talent pool. Evaluating based on competencies can help not only level the playing field and eliminate bias, but also ensure that employers hire those people who can actually meet their needs.

When you evaluate for skills instead of degrees, suddenly the talent pool gets a whole lot bigger. New Mexico-based Innovate + Educate, which uses research-based strategies to address the national skills gap, found that while only one percent of unemployed New Mexican young adults met criteria for jobs that required a college degree, 33 percent were qualified when measured by sheer skill.

The companies that make the shift to skills-based hiring stand to be rewarded on several levels. Bridgespan's extensive research, and that of many others, on opportunity youth suggests that when given a clear pathway and the tools for success, these youth rise to the challenge. A recent Stanford Social Innovation Review article, Hidden Talent: How Smart Companies are Tapping into Unemployed Youth, highlighted the returns a number of companies are getting from investing in opportunity youth. These include higher retention and stronger connections with diverse customers--in an economy where loyalty wouldn't be the trait that many companies would use to describe their entry-level staff.

Accelerating Access to Opportunity

Nearly all of the companies at the forefront of realizing these returns are partnering with organizations or educational institutions that provide general professional skills or hard skills training. One such company, State Street, a leading financial service firm, is working with Bottom Line, Year Up and others to help prepare low-income youth for roles in its organization.

Similarly, CVS Health is working with Jewish Vocational Services and other organizations to address its formidable staffing needs. The pharmacy chain hires 1,000 entry-level workers per week to keep its more than 9,600 retail locations fully staffed. To meet this demand, CVS Health has a workforce development team that reaches deep into communities to find overlooked talent. Their efforts include a training store in a technical high school in Lowell, MA, where three-quarters of students are classified as low income.

Year Up has found another way to marry job training and education. The young people who participate in its program complete courses that are eligible for college credit. Year Up has brought its program directly to a number of academic institutions, so that Year Up graduates can leave with a degree, experience, and a job.

Still other organizations are devising or refining ways to give credit for skills rather than traditional education class hours. All of these endeavors represent a growing set of innovative and powerful exemplars of effective career pathways--ripe for replication.


Reaching Out to Low-Income Youth


The bottom line is low-income youth are worthy of attention and investment. They are least likely to have the network that we enjoyed growing up--guidance and connections built into the fabric of their lives.

In addition to getting behind the compelling endeavors to re-connect all opportunity youth with education and employment, philanthropists and organizations looking to help low-income youth get or stay on a career track can:

• Work with employers, educators, and trainers to create work-based learning opportunities while students are still in high school and college; and

• Invest in developing and scaling advising technology that can inform local guidance counselors and other potential advisers of the most promising local career pathways.

With these and other inputs, we can reach the youth with the greatest need and help them find promising pathways into careers and out of poverty.