Six Practices and Principles for Effective Employment Programming for Opportunity Youth

By David T. Applegate, Research and Policy Assistant, National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

Youth participants from Larkin Street Youth Services.

Photo courtesy of Larkin Street Youth Services.

There’s increasing national recognition that opportunity youth, or youth ages 16 to 24 years old who aren’t working or in school, can benefit substantially from gaining work experience but need help overcoming barriers to employment. Opportunity youth facing the most significant challenges—such as living in poverty, being involved in the justice system, or experiencing homelessness—often need the most intensive help to get and keep jobs, but are at risk of being left behind even by employment programs designed to help at-risk youth.

After digging into the research literature and conducting extensive interviews with opportunity youth employment providers across the country, we’ve just released a new toolkit and webinar about promising practices and principles for helping opportunity youth with the greatest barriers to employment succeed in the workforce. Here are the six promising practices and principles we’ve identified to guide employment programming for the most vulnerable opportunity youth.

#1: Target and Reach the Youth Who Can Benefit the Most

Youth facing the greatest barriers to getting and keeping a job are also likely to benefit the most from intensive employment services. Identifying and recruiting these youth to participate in employment programming is an important first step. This means that programs need to reach out to youth who don’t seek services on their own and who might be the most challenging to engage; as providers at Roca, Inc., put it, “If you can come into our office and show up for services every day, you’re actually not for us!” Whether it’s on the streets in their communities or through strong referral relationships with social service systems, service providers should engage in assertive and persistent outreach to identify and recruit the young people who need their services the most

#2: Design Program Engagement to Align with the Realities of Serving Youth

Preparing youth facing multiple barriers to employment for workplace success takes time, and employment programs for opportunity youth need to be ready to engage with their participants for as long as it takes. Employment programs serving opportunity youth often measure their engagement period in years, and an extended and flexible engagement period is critical to implementing many of the best and promising practices we’ve identified.  At the same time, service providers need to remember that it’s unlikely vulnerable young people with little or no prior work experience will be immediately successful in programming, including in job placements. Service providers should anticipate and plan for “failure”—such as getting asked to leave a transitional job—and offer structured pathways back into programming and employment. Successful programs will be ready to offer youth multiple chances to fail and try again, and having an extended and flexible program engagement period helps providers do just that.

#3: Address the Unique Developmental Needs of Opportunity Youth

Youth and young adults have different developmental needs than adult job seekers. In our interviews with service providers, many emphasized the need to “meet youth where they are,” or to understand and accept a young person’s readiness to and willingness to take steps toward positive change.   For example, Larkin Street in San Francisco meets youth where they are by offering a range of employment services. In YouthForce, a transitional jobs program, youth who are ready for entry level work can earn an hourly wage in a safe, stable environment; youth who are ready to take steps toward a career path can enroll in a job readiness class and then in the Institute for Hire Learning (IHL), where they’re matched up with paid job opportunities and vocational training. Employment program providers also need tools to help youth make commitments to change, and many providers find it effective to incorporate therapeutic techniques such as an understanding of change theory, motivational interviewing, trauma-informed care, and cognitive behavioral therapy into their service delivery. Although these strategies have their roots in therapeutic practice where they may be used to address a problem or disorder, employment program providers use these techniques as tools to build confidence, draw out strengths, and bolster commitment toward the goal of succeeding in employment.

#4: Offer Paid Employment Opportunities to Educate Youth on Workplace Success Basics

A guaranteed chance to earn money can serve as an incentive for opportunity youth to engage in programming and receive services that they would not otherwise seek out, which is why many employment programs targeting opportunity youth offer paid employment experience. Youth are also less likely than adult jobseekers to have prior work experience, so providing paid employment opportunities offers the chance to learn about successful workplace behaviors and employer expectations. Providing transitional employment through an in-house social enterprise may be an especially valuable paid employment program model because it provides a safe space where young people can observe, model, and practice workplace behaviors while still being subject to the demands of a real workplace.

#5: Emphasize Building Trusting Relationships with Participants in Staff Hiring and Training

Program providers emphasized that positive and trusting relationships between staff and participants is a critical part of successful employment programming for opportunity youth. Opportunity youth who have experienced trauma such as homelessness or justice system involvement may require extra time to develop trust in a caring adult, so having staff members devoted to nurturing and maintaining caring, one-on-one relationships with participants can be especially helpful. Additionally, fostering positive peer relationships through support groups, job clubs, and motivational group meetings can play an important role in helping young people become more confident, recognize their strengths, and achieve success in employment.

#6: Educate Employers on the Value and Techniques for Successfully Employing Opportunity Youth

Employer partners can have misconceptions about employing youth—especially youth who have experienced homelessness, been involved in the justice system, or lack prior work experience. Employers might not be immediately equipped to manage opportunity youth in a way that is sensitive to their traumatic experiences while still helping them develop workplace skills. Continuous efforts to prepare and educate employers about what to expect from young workers who may have experienced trauma are crucial to developing successful relationships with employers and valuable work opportunities for youth. Recruiting employer partners who have successfully hosted or hired program participants in the past to share their stories is one example of how to overcome negative stereotypes and demonstrate to employers the value of hiring opportunity youth. Maintaining constant communication and room for feedback among employer partners, program staff, and the youth themselves is also critical to this process.

Opportunity youth have a critical need to access employment and succeed in the labor market. These youth often need a comprehensive set of employment services that meet them where they are, mitigate barriers to employment, and engage them with employment and educational options that reflect their goals. It is vitally important that we include opportunity youth as we look to prepare the next generation of workers for success in the workforce—and we’re confident that our new toolkit will help program practitioners, administrators, and other stakeholders do just that.

Like what you read? Take a look at these other resources:
Our new Opportunity Youth Employment Toolkit.
Our
Opportunity Youth Employment Webinar. 
Our
program spotlights of employment programs serving opportunity youth.

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About National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

Heartland Alliance’s National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity is dedicated to ending chronic unemployment and poverty. We believe that every person deserves the opportunity to succeed in work and support themselves and their families. Through our field building, we provide support and guidance that fosters more effective and sustainable employment efforts. Our policy and advocacy work advances solutions to the systemic issues that drive chronic unemployment.

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