Opportunity YouthLast month SCPa Works, with the help of our partners at Jobs for the Future (JFF) and Youth Empowerment Services (YES) Philly, organized a roundtable discussion bringing together educators, service providers and community leaders to talk about Opportunity Youth. For many in the room, the Opportunity Youth Summit marked a seminal moment in our community, representing a new commitment to better serve our young people who have been disconnected from education and the labor force.

The scope and scale of the challenges facing Opportunity Youth are well documented. Across the country, there are approximately 6.7 million young adults between the ages of 16-24 who are disconnected from educational programs and the labor market. Some have chronic challenges – they have never been in school or at work after the age of 16. Others are “marginally attached” – they have had some school or work experience beyond the age of 16, but have not progressed through post-secondary education or secured stable attachment to the labor force. The economic burden felt by Opportunity Youth is also felt by society at large: each costs society more than $1 million over the course of their lifetime, totaling $4.75 trillion in aggregate over the lifetime of this population. These are truly staggering numbers.

New federal legislation, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), directs 75% of youth funding toward out-of-school youth ages 16-24 (many of whom are Opportunity Youth). This approach has provided a catalyst for a community-wide conversation about how we better serve this group of young adults who are disconnected from education and the workforce.

The Opportunity Youth Summit shed light on a number of critical components to building effective programs and services to help Opportunity Youth. In order to begin to build lasting, sustained momentum to tackle this problem, we need to better understand the empirical evidence on proven models that effectively serve opportunity youth. Here’s a quick summary of what we learned at the Summit, effective models from the latest research, and how SCPa Works is planning to continue our momentum and support:

Nothing can replace the value of work

For disconnected out-of-school young adults, the opportunity to connect to training and the workforce is paramount. Put simply, nothing can prepare young people for the rigors of the workforce better than actual on-the-job experience. Young adults learn to work by working. At SCPa Works, we are committed to connecting youth to a value chain stretching from education to job opportunities and beyond. However, research has shown that simply providing a training program or a summer job for a young person isn’t always enough for sustained participation in a program

Quality of work experience matters

Low-wage work not connected to a career pathway or that young people perceive to have no value, may not be as effective as work experience that provides a sense of future advancement or the satisfaction of providing a needed service to the community. At SCPa Works, we are actively implementing sector-based strategies that use real-time labor market data to connect work experiences to occupations in industries that provide family-sustaining wages. In order to build a value chain of educational and workforce experiences for opportunity youth, it’s essential to connect them to good paying work experiences that have a clearly defined career pathway.

Deep employer engagement is essential

At the Opportunity Summit, an educator from York shared the story of an owner of a successful engineering firm that has taken the initiative to employ and mentor young high school students at this own company over three summers, starting in 9th grade. The results of this consistent, sustained, hands-on approach to early career development show promise. Even more impressive was the educator’s observation; although the business owner employed a charitable and altruistic approach to mentoring young people, he was also an astute businessman. Make no mistake; early career development through internships, apprenticeships, and paid summer work experience are good for the business’s bottom line.

Well-defined career pathways are critical

The basic tenet of the career pathway approach is to provide young people with a structured sequence of education and training opportunities, creating a clear “path” for students to follow toward attaining a career in a specific industry or occupational sector. Many successful models employ a career-focused, contextualized curriculum in an occupational area in the regional labor market where workers are in high demand, and everything is taught in the context of that career. The WIOA legislation makes clear that career pathways should be driven by labor market demand. There are several sector-based career pathways that have demonstrated success in serving young adults with a high school diploma or equivalent education, including Year Up and Per Scholas.

Support services that address a young person’s barriers to participation

Although transportation is one of the most often mentioned issues when it comes to providing services for young people, there are a host of important challenges to participation, such as mental health issues. Given that out-of-school youth are a heterogeneous population with a range of experiences and skills, it’s important to take an individualized approach to addressing their personal barriers. While no one program can directly meet all of a young person’s needs, it points to the need for regional solutions for flexible funding and economies of scale that may help provide these supportive services.

Cohort models can be an effective strategy

Enrolling young people in a series of small cohorts, as opposed to admitting them on a rolling basis, might encourage increased engagement by facilitating peer relationships and feelings of community. There has been some substantial empirical research on the effectiveness of cohort models. Accordingly, stakeholders at the Opportunity Youth Summit noted, cohorts are also effective ways of providing follow-up services, such as reaching program graduates through a friend who went through the same program.

Where do we go from here?

As SCPa Works begins to shape an Opportunity Youth strategy with our community partners, we believe it’s critical to include evidence-based program models for serving opportunity youth as cornerstones of our foundation. These models will shape our development and alignment of the right mix of resources aimed at providing a sustained positive impact for our region’s young adults. We encourage you to check out our full list of opportunity youth resources on our website to provide more information on some evidence-based models that have proven to be successful.

This is a critical time for our community in terms of serving opportunity youth – we know that the challenges that lay in front of us are far too systemic and entrenched for any one organization to effectively combat it. However, the “Opportunity Youth Summit” reminded us all that there is an energetic community of thought-leaders and expert practitioners excited about working together to take on this problem.

This is just the beginning of our conversation and we welcome a continued community dialogue on the issue. We need your help and your voice to better serve our young people in South Central PA. We’d love to connect with you about the action that we’re taking on this challenge. Stay tuned – there are some great things ahead!