“Sometimes being disconnected happens while in school. Sometimes it’s high school kids who just don’t see the connection between what they’re doing in the classroom and any vision for their future. And so yeah, maybe they show up. Maybe they even get a high school diploma. But they aren’t leaving with the skills they need for postsecondary success. And they aren’t leaving with a plan for what they’re going to do next. That’s the challenge that we need to respond to collectively.”
Former Secretary of Education John King offered this challenge in his opening remarks at Urban Alliance’s Innovation and Collaboration event held earlier this month in Washington, D.C. Secretary King recognized that students who are at risk of becoming opportunity youth – the term given to the nearly 5million young people ages 16-24 who are out of work and out of school – aren’t always easy to identify. That’s because too many high school students on track to graduate are still ill-prepared to succeed in adulthood.
That’s why Urban Alliance focuses its efforts on high school seniors – students just on the cusp of adulthood whose decisions now can shape their entire future. When the right experience or the right teacher can mean the difference between enrolling in college, securing a job, or forfeiting the best chance at economic self-sufficiency – that’s when Urban Alliance steps in.
We believe that early access to employment opportunities, paired with critical professional skills training and caring mentors helps connect the dots between the “real world” and high school and ultimately eases that transition. Over the last two decades, we’ve placed over 4,000 high school seniors in paid, professional internships. And our approach is working. Our recent, six-year randomized controlled trial results found that young men completing our program increased their chances of enrolling in college by 23 percentage points.
More young people need access to this kind of workforce development. But as we argue in our new white paper, Job Training Starts Now, high schools aren’t always set up to provide it. Too many barriers – from strict academic requirements, to a lack of employer relationships and constraints on staff capacity– exist to keep schools and districts from offering such work-based learning opportunities.
Ensuring our young people succeed after high school is a concern that we all share. But how do we ensure they have the necessary skills, access, opportunity, and networks to do so? Our paper breaks down eight Youth Employment Prescriptions that can start the conversation over increased workforce training and work experience opportunities for youth in your community.
1. Enhance the high school experience with credit-bearing internships – Students should have the opportunity to gain early work experience and professional soft skills as part of their high school education.
2. Partner with youth employment specialists to support work-based learning – Schools don’t have to do this alone. They can tap into the resources and expertise of organizations or programs that specialize in providing work-based learning opportunities to students.
3. Keep youth on track in high school – before they have a chance to get off track – Philanthropists should invest in both reconnection AND prevention strategies to address the problem of youth disconnection more holistically.
4. Encourage the business community to invest in youth – Philanthropists can add credibility to youth employment organizations by becoming early public champions.
5. Redefine post-secondary success – We should be measuring post-high school success more broadly by including connection not just to college, but to other pathways to economic stability, such as vocational training or employment.
6. Increase collaboration among data sources – Policymakers should make it easier to track student outcomes after high school through increased streamlining and availability of data.
7. Realize the potential of young workers – Businesses can work with organizations in the field to learn more about the benefits of high school-age interns.
8. Invest in workforce development now – Early corporate investment in workforce development will create a new generation of workers better positioned for success.
Any answer to curbing youth disconnection has to start with recognizing when the problem begins – and it’s not after disconnection has occurred. We have to be willing to explore new solutions and listen to new voices. And we need to tackle this problem as a whole community – not just leave it up to schools. It’s time to reimagine high school – together.