How Intermediaries Can Help Black and Latinx Youth Develop a Strong Occupational Identity: Four Principles of Practice

By Nancy Hoffman, Lucretia Murphy, and Gregory Seaton – Published December 2020 in JFFSubscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the socioeconomic marginalization of youth minorities and other groups. It is more vital than ever for intermediaries to create new pathways that lead to humane wages and working conditions for adolescents entering the labor market.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Equitable Futures initiative defines occupational identity as “how young people envision their future selves in the workforce, what they like to do, what they believe they are skilled at, and where they feel they belong.” However, socioeconomic barriers often prevent youth of color, especially those experiencing poverty, from actualizing their occupational identities. Moreover, lack of institutional support typically reduces living-wage opportunities for these individuals. Intermediaries,* such as career counselors, can help students who are disproportionately marginalized navigate the unique challenges of their postsecondary careers.  Without intermediary support, marginalized students will continue to have less opportunity to be significant agents of social change within high-demand industries. 

Many schools serving students of color do not have sufficient career counseling resources. For example:

  • According to the Education Trust, 38 states have inadequate counselor-to-student ratios (recommended to be one counselor to 250 students). 
  • Schools that predominately service students of color have higher counselor-to-student ratios than schools that serve predominately white students. 
  • According to the American Enterprise Institute,  over decades, students of color, students experiencing poverty, and students with disabilities have typically been tracked into vocational programs that usually result in low-wage jobs. 
  • The growth of sophisticated career and technical education programs (CTE) have replaced vocational programs and show how students in these programs attend college at the same rate as their peers. However, a study by Pew Research  suggests that “tracking still occurs, with higher rates of white and Asian students concentrating in high-paying careers like STEM and higher rates of Black and Latinx students in lower-paying areas such as construction and manufacturing.” 

Intermediaries can focus on both college and career pathways and use “equity as its north star.” They can view the individual strengths of their students and see them as willing, energetic learners with valuable life experiences and dreams for a good life. In addition, intermediaries and employers can make use of the research-based principles of youth development.  

Overall, there are four guiding principles that intermediaries can utilize to better support equitable career outcomes for youth of color, especially those experiencing poverty.

1.  Apply Best Practices That Support the Most Marginalized
Labor market information (LMI), is data that can be used by postsecondary institutions to develop programs that teach high-demand skills and lead to living-wage jobs. LMI evaluates existing workforce programming in relation to regional labor market demands, allowing institutions to mold curriculum more closely with the needs of employers. With LMI, intermediaries can provide students with a set of defined career pathways that garner both high-rates of employment and living-wages. In the long term, programs that adapt to regional-specific labor market demands will provide access to career niches previously unavailable to marginalized individuals.

In the short term, connecting low-income students with “lifeboat jobs,” defined by Burning Glass as jobs that can “fill an immediate need,” is vital to help young people support themselves while also developing skills that are transferable to higher-wage careers. 

2.  Focus on Youth Assets
Youth of color are generally more concerned with logistical barriers to enrolling in postsecondary career programs than their White peers. According to the Equitable Futures initiative, “when Black and Latinx youth transitioned to college, they worried about near-term obstacles to [college] access, such as the costs, barriers of inequality, and the risk of dropping out.” Their white peers “were more focused on future-oriented career success and landing dream jobs.” Intermediaries need to provide support to students of color that “enables them to build on their assets to overcome anticipated challenges associated with a career pathway.”    

3.  Build Cultural Competence
Intermediaries can help students understand cultural practices most suitable to use in different settings,” a practice identified as “code switching,” whereby behavioral and language expectations typically used when socializing with their friends are recognized as much different than expectations in a work environment. For instance, students need to understand and be able to use work-related jargon. Intermediaries should also collaborate with employers “in work-based learning and internship experiences to create opportunities for bidirectional feedback…”   

4.  Enable Youth to Exercise Self-Advocacy
Encouraging young people to vocalize against social inequality is a necessary building block to creating non-discriminatory work environments. According to Glassdoor’s Diversity and Inclusion Study in 2019, “61 percent of adult workers in the United States have witnessed or experienced some form of workplace discrimination. Similarly, 42 percent of U.S. workers have witnessed or experienced racism.” With the high probability of an employee of color facing racial discrimination in the workplace, counselors and workforce development intermediaries must discuss these tensions and teach youth of color how to successfully identify, address, and self-advocate in response to workplace discrimination. 

In Conclusion
The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the socioeconomic marginalization of youth minorities and other groups. It is more vital than ever for intermediaries to create new pathways that lead to humane wages and working conditions for adolescents entering the labor market. To reduce inequity, intermediaries must fully endorse the increased allocation of resources for counseling and income-support services and continue to support positive change. 

* For an in-depth explanation of intermediaries and their roles, see a special report by the Center for Public Research and Leadership (CPRL) titled “Intermediary Organizations and Education Innovation: Frameworks and Tools for Understanding and Evaluating Intermediary Organizations and Their Role in K-12 Education Innovation.”