Building Back Better: A National Plan for Youth Employment

By Kisha Bird, Brent Parton, Taylor White – Published May 2021 by New AmericaSubscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

This is the sixth report summary from the Better Employment and Training Strategies (BETS) taskforce that has developed policy recommendations to support the Biden-Harris administration and the 117th Congress in addressing the labor market impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In several respects, America’s federal and local government, postsecondary education, and workforce development organizations have failed to connect young adults efficiently and equitably to meaningful careers and family-sustaining wages. According to one analysis that studied a group of millennials over a decade, involuntary youth disconnection from postsecondary education and the workforce too often rises with age. One percent of 18-year-olds, 5% of 20-year-olds, and 12% of 26-year-old millennials were reported to be disconnected from career-pathways and livable income. Further, poor education, labor and earning outcomes are disproportionately concentrated among youth of color. In this report, New America recommends specific federal action to increase youth access to meaningful employment and quality income. 

Lessons Learned from Past Federal Projects
Past federal initiatives like the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 and the “school-to-work effort in 1994” did not result in adequate employment and long-term career outcomes for America’s youth. The ARRA funds used for paid work experiences did not “further classroom education and on-the-job training to prepare for a career.” ARRA “investments in education and training, particularly in community colleges,” failed to sufficiently enroll youth and integrate programs with labor market information. The school-to-work effort in 1994 “neglected to focus on real-world paid work experience,” and similar to ARRA, “failed to sufficiently strengthen existing state- and district-level career and technical education infrastructure.” 

Strategies for a New National Plan
Policy makers should be guided by the following principles when delineating federal investment for youth employment:

  • Prioritize young adults who face the greatest obstacles to employment and deliver informed career support and guidance. 
  • Fund “community-based solutions, capacity-building for local systems and programs, and local decision-making.”
  • “Enhance interagency and cross-system alignment at the federal level” to more effectively meet the needs of young workers.  
  • Offer paid opportunities to youth in positions that support the development of workforce development programs. Use their need-based experiences to create effective programs as well as policies at the federal level. 

Recovery & Relief Recommendations
Continuing current provisions from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) can support increased access to career pathways for young adults. For example, through the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the extension of unemployment insurance, more young workers can be kept out of extreme poverty. In addition, the removal of barriers to enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is, and has been, essential for millions of young adults’ efforts to provide for themselves and their families. Nonetheless, despite such achievements, ARP was unsuccessful in raising the federal minimum wage. Raising the minimum wage and eliminating the subminimum wage could stabilize the financial lives of low-income individuals, people with disabilities, and young workers. Also, another way to increase youth earning and learning outcomes not addressed by ARP is by improving the financial aid system to better support low-income students. 

For economic recovery following the pandemic, New America recommends the following:

  • Increase access to paid work, “particularly for young adults from low-income backgrounds” and “support capacity building” within local organizations to “improve program design, operations, and assessment.”
  • Improve coordination between federal agencies to better serve state and local jurisdictions. For example, collaborate with the U.S. Departments of Energy and Transportation, the Domestic Policy Council and the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor to “identify job roles necessary to support transit infrastructure and climate change mitigation, and develop quality career pathways to prepare youth for those jobs.” 
  • Enact legislation like The Connecting Youth to Jobs Act to create a good foundational framework for improving youth employment outcomes. 
  • Congress should create a “national youth-on-the-job learning initiative” that would incentivize “employers for up to 75% of wages paid up to 12 months for hiring youth who are also participating in an eligible education and training program.” The initiative would provide wage subsidies only for jobs paying at least $15/hour (excluding hazardous occupations offered to individuals under 18) and include opportunities for workers to earn college credit or industry credentials. Subsidized employers would also not be allowed to lay off existing workers.
  • Set new baseline standards for employment program quality and invest in state and local intermediaries who offer paid work experiences that include postsecondary training in career pathways such as IT, manufacturing, energy, and the care economy.
  • “Increase aid for youth services.” According to CLASP, “during the pandemic more than 90 percent of unemployed young people were unable to access any income.” 
  • “Establish an interagency cabinet response to coordinate federal investment and policy to support youth across systems” and formulate a national youth strategy that supports “connections to work and learning.” This strategy would incorporate “clear definitions for program outcomes”; summarize federally funded programs that state and local governments should adopt; analyze departments such as “DOL, DOT, ED, DOI, HHS, and HUD” and “integrate pathways for youth to advance equity”; clarify use of “WIOA, Federal Work-Study, and TANF funds to subsidize wages for young people”; guide states and regions for increased use of relief and recovery investments for youth employment programming; and identify “administrative, regulatory, and legislative change. . . that more effectively align federal investments in support of high-quality youth programs.” 

Education-to-Employment Policy Recommendations
The following national investment strategies would support state and local leaders across the U.S. in strengthening affordable postsecondary options, high school career pathways, apprenticeship and earn-and-lean access, and overall technical education quality. 

  • “Invest $10 billion in a postsecondary Bridging for All initiative.” This could link the nation’s K-12, higher education, and workforce development systems to increase access to pre-apprenticeship, evidence-based counseling, and career readiness programs for “at-risk, school-age young people, older people, and chronically disconnected adults.” 
  • Increase funding for the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, devote resources from the CTE National Activities Fund for equity-focused innovations, and reauthorize WIOA and the Higher Education Act funding. Have such funding reauthorizations match financing of the Relaunch America’s Workforce Act that “called for $15 billion in new workforce investments. . .” 
  • In fields such as “health care, IT, education, engineering, or business and finance,” invest $100 million over four years in corresponding CTE systems that include college credit for learners that would ultimately produce more degreed workers and increase earnings for graduates. 
  • “In key [high demand] fields such as advanced manufacturing, technology, care, and energy,” develop a career-focused training and apprenticeship model similar to the Workforce Framework for Cybersecurity which would support access to well-paid occupations, create standardized credit-bearing pathways, and increase the number of earn-and-learn programs offered by education and industry partners.  
  • Increase the quality and access of apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships through executive and congressional action by updating guidance from the Departments of Labor and Education, thereby informing instructional design that is “career-oriented, equitable, portable, adaptable, and accountable.” Require “at least 20 percent of the NAA’s proposed $3 billion in congressional appropriations. . . be set aside for intermediary partnerships focused on expanding youth apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships.” 
  • Increase access of apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships geared toward high school students and younger adults through congressional funding of a “Classroom to Career Education grant competition, jointly administered by the Departments of Labor and Education.” The grant would encourage partnerships among K-12, postsecondary institutions, industry, and workforce development systems. 
  • Develop and implement articulation agreements among high schools, higher education institutions and registered apprenticeship programs that would award college-credit for on-the-job learning for youth. 

Career development of young people significantly benefits the national economy. In the aftermath of the pandemic, it is critical for the country’s future economic development to invest in talented young people who have historically been blocked financially from meaningful career pathways. By enacting dramatic federal recovery, relief, and informed educational-to-employment policy, the nation will experience more equitable labor and income outcomes, as well as stronger economic potential for American-based industries.

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