Providing opportunities for young Americans

Lili Allen looks at how US employers can help young workers advance in an economy leaving them behind

When the COVID-19 pandemic first upended the global workforce in 2020, it hit the youngest workers especially hard. Within five months, the number of people in the US between the ages of 16 and 24 who were neither working nor going to school doubled to more than 10 million. By the end of 2021, these young people had begun to make up some lost ground, but their employment rates – particularly among Black and Latinx young people – still lagged far behind that of older workers. In December, the unemployment rate of 20- to 24-year-old workers was twice that of 25- to 54-year-old workers

Millions of young workers are now labouring in low-wage jobs in food service, retail, and other industries that do not pay enough to cover basic needs. Nearly half of the 1.7 million fast-food and counter workers in the United States are ages 14 to 24, and they earn a median hourly wage of $11.47. The second-largest group of young workers consists of cashiers, who earn slightly more at just over $12 an hour. This is not a short-term obstacle for young workers. Research shows that higher wages at age 23 are correlated with higher wages for older adults. Access to training and career development is crucial at this stage of a worker’s life. 

Now more than ever, employers and talent managers must work to help young workers leapfrog from low-wage work to higher-paying jobs with opportunities for advancement.

Making career pathways more transparent
Lower-wage employees have made it clear they desire opportunities for growth and career development. But the pathway toward advancement is not always an obvious one. Employers should assist workers in identifying specific skills that support moving from entry-level jobs to higher-wage positions. It should be made clear what kinds of foundational baseline skills workers should develop as they start their careers, as well as what specialised and technical skills are required to advance within an organisation. Employers should also ensure employees can actually foster these skills, either through on-the-job training, work-based learning, or tuition assistance. 

Employers have an immense responsibility to guide, support, and advocate for their struggling young employees

The skills young workers gain in their lower-wage jobs are foundational and can easily be transferred and transformed with the right kinds of support. Employers should design transparent career pathways that show their young workers which skills should be expanded upon, which competencies they should yet master, and how those skills can translate to a stable, well-paying career within an organisation. 

To build talent, it takes a village
Employers cannot do this alone – and they don’t have to. 

Positive and productive partnerships between employers, community organisations, and training providers will prove essential to creating better outcomes for young workers. Community organisations serve as the front door for young adults facing barriers in the labour market and they can be a tremendous resource for employers. They are well connected and can bring with them a wide network of support. With the right kind of partnerships, they can offer a full suite of wraparound services, including transportation assistance, childcare, and access to training programmes. Such organisations can also widen employers’ reach into their communities, allowing companies to tap into a more diverse pipeline of young talent. Likewise, employers should build strong relationships with local colleges, workforce programmes, and other organisations focused on education and skills development. 

For such partnerships to be possible, employers, and organisation leaders must be prepared to openly and frankly discuss their goals, needs, and resources. The relationship must be a true partnership, not simply a transactional one. Transparency and openness are critical and adopting a collaborative stance to finding solutions is key. 

Changing career trajectories means changing policy
To help more young adults make the transition to better and higher-paying career paths, we also need to make some long-overdue changes in the world of public policy. In upcoming federal job creation initiatives—including infrastructure, green energy, and health care workforce initiatives— policymakers must ensure that young adults from low-income households, including opportunity youth, have access to such opportunities. Skills training for these jobs should be a priority, with not less than 1 percent of funding for these initiatives dedicated to job training for unemployed and underemployed individuals, including out-of-school and out-of-work youth. 

Employers are positively positioned to influence policy conversations with their wealth of insights into the needs of the workforce. Their voices are especially important now, as federal and state policymakers seek to support young workers in COVID-19 recovery efforts as well as through reauthorisation of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), the primary federal programme serving out-of-school and out-of-work youth. Employers must call on policymakers to increase investments in programmes that serve young adults facing barriers in the labour market, and they should consider supporting the Biden administration’s efforts to create a national Career Advising Corps, which would provide high-quality career counselling to high school students, college students, workers, and others disconnected from work and learning. 

As we continue to navigate the road to a more equitable and inclusive economic recovery, employers have an immense responsibility to guide, support, and advocate for their struggling young employees. We cannot allow a short-term economic downturn to derail the lifelong economic prospects of a generation of workers. 


Lili Allen is associate vice president at JFF

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