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Youth Employment Works: A new national strategy for career pathways

April 13, 2023
By: Casey Nemecek

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) recently unveiled a new strategy aimed at improving and increasing access to work experiences for young people. Emphasizing the need for a comprehensive vision to address the challenges young people face in accessing education, training, and meaningful work experiences, the Youth Employment Works strategy represents the first national youth employment strategy in over two decades.

Similar to its predecessor, the School-to-Work Opportunity Act, the Youth Employment Works strategy focuses on the importance of strong partnerships to support high-quality career pathways for young people. Career pathways for youth are coordinated programs that combine education, training, and work experiences to help youth transition from school to career. Combining various experiences such as youth apprenticeships, internships, co-op programs, job shadowing, mentorship, and other project-based learning opportunities, these programs enable youth to explore various industries and occupations, develop in-demand skills, and make informed decisions about their future careers and education.

The Youth Employment Works strategy cannot succeed without investment from the public and private sectors. During a summit announcing the strategy, former Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh shared, “establishing these partnerships is how we build the ‘no wrong door’ system. Wherever a young person reaches out: there needs to be a way into opportunity and a path forward into a career.”

Another core element of the Youth Employment Works strategy is paid work experience. Guaranteeing compensation breaks down one barrier for participation by ensuring that all young people have access to safe and age-appropriate work opportunities. It also drives interest, engagement, and motivation to complete programs. Incorporating opportunities for youth participants to earn college credits or credentials offers additional cost-saving benefits for youth; however, special attention is needed to ensure that earned credits and credentials are stackable and transferable.   

A recent report by the Project on Workforce at Harvard University took a close look at program outcomes for CareerWise Colorado, one of the nation’s longest-standing youth apprenticeship intermediaries. Promising to be an “options multiplier,” CareerWise Colorado serves as a lynchpin between Coloradan K-12 and postsecondary education providers, employers, youth and their families to coordinate two- or three-year apprenticeships for high school students. Apprentices are hired by local companies across nine industries (including healthcare, advanced manufacturing, and education) and earn college credits and an industry-recognized certification while working and completing their high school degree.

CareerWise Colorado’s first two apprenticeship cohorts had 27% exit into a postsecondary degree program and 37% stay in the workforce either with the same employer (20%) or with a new company (17%). Of all the apprentices who stayed employed, more than 70% reported they are concurrently pursuing a degree or certificate on a full-time or part-time basis.

As more people are questioning the value of higher education, high-quality work-based learning experiences, such as youth apprenticeships, can provide opportunities for young people to explore career options and determine how and when to pursue further education and training.

This flexibility resonated with Indiana high schoolers and their parents who participated in focus groups (led by New America) exploring current attitudes toward post-graduation opportunities. Although the focus groups’ perceptions around apprenticeships were generally favorable, participants noted concerns that college was still seen as the most prestigious option for high schoolers to pursue. One parent shared, “There’s always the ‘wall’ of all the kids and what colleges they were accepted to, not so much those going to trade school or the military or the jobs that they’ve landed...Those things aren’t given the same amount of praise or even attention.’’

Career pathway programs can help break down the assumption that college must happen immediately upon graduation by designing and demonstrating options for blending work and education. 

Although the DOL has not yet announced any new funding directly connected to the Youth Employment Works strategy, it complements several existing federal initiatives, such as the Career Z Challenge and the Workforce Pathways for Youth grant program.

This article was prepared by SSTI using Federal funds under award ED22HDQ3070129 from the Economic Development Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Economic Development Administration or the U.S. Department of Commerce.

workforce, dol, youth