As more cities across the nation are implementing youth employment programs, it’s much more than dollars and sense: data can directly impact the future of these programs.
By Andrew O. Moore.
Last month the president announced a $5.5 billion proposal to create summer and first-time jobs for youths and new apprenticeship opportunities, followed in March by the launch of a “Summer Opportunity Project” with specific commitments from federal agencies and the private sector. The White House’s emphasis on youth employment is strongly endorsed by local leaders who know from experience that summer jobs can check a lot of boxes for young people: helping them to stay out of trouble, learn financial management skills, “get banked,” and develop soft skills that are crucial to later success in the workforce.
Expanding youth employment is just one prescription for a larger ill afflicting many American communities, where an estimated 6.7 million young men and women have disengaged from both work and school —a number equivalent to the entire population of Tennessee and that costs taxpayers approximately $250 billion each year in lost revenue, earnings, and increased social services. Connecting these youths with paths back to school and the workforce is in everyone’s urgent self-interest. And so the Corporation for National and Community Service recently invested $6 million in a network of communities to figure out how best to do it.
Unfortunately, the data that can answer that question is locked away from decision-makers by the same agencies asking how best to prepare youths for the workforce.
To understand what a problem this is, consider how crucially summer jobs and reengagement programs rely on mayors, business executives, and civic groups to “connect the dots” and turn dollars into new opportunities for young people. For example:
- Louisville’s SummerWorks program is formally led by the regional workforce board, Kentuckiana Works, but Mayor Greg Fischer was able to scale it from serving 200 to 2,100 youths annually by partnering with the local schools and convincing private industry to create summer positions and foot 80 percent of the bill.
- Boston’s Opportunity Youth Collaborative is organized by the city’s Private Industry Council but executed by a partnership of 80 organizations that includes city, state, and national allies. Together they run a one-stop connection center for youths and provide occupational skills training and mentorship to create pathways into the workforce for historically underserved young Bostonians.
These collaborations are the rule, not the exception. Government education and workforce training programs are important, but it is local leaders that braid those funds together, augment them with philanthropic and private dollars, and embed them in neighborhoods.
Yet the leaders building these broad civic partnerships generally receive the least information about which strategies, services, and programs are effective. Each employer, nonprofit, workforce agency, and educator keeps a record of each youth they serve and knows one small part of the larger story. But none of these records answer the $250 billion question—whether these young people go on to success in college and the workforce. When pressed by funders to report their results, communities often resort to telephoning the youths they are still able to locate to generate estimates of their impact. This expensive and inexact process satisfies nobody and tells cities nothing new about how to spend their scarce youth employment dollars so as to do the most good.
There’s a better approach.
State education and workforce agencies, which already have academic transcripts and wage records on each of these youths, should partner closely with local leaders to ensure this information gets back to them in a form that allows them to use it quickly, securely, and inexpensively. Nineteen states already link high school and workforce records; 43 incorporate postsecondary records. By sharing what they know, local and state agencies can create reports that track the enrollment, persistence, and degree completion of youths benefiting from these programs, as well as the proportion that land family-sustaining jobs. None of this requires new data—it merely puts what states already collect to work to answer some key questions.
Congress can play a role as well by being explicit when it amends the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) that educators can securely share student records with workforce investment boards for the limited purposes of evaluating and improving services for youths. We have an ethical responsibility to use the information our systems collect to help young people—as well as to protect their privacy.
Finally, policymakers at all levels should acknowledge the crucial role that evidence plays in improving outcomes for youths. States in particular must continue to invest in the capacity to measure what matters to their residents and provide a budgetary line item to support the kinds of collaboration with local decision-makers described above. The president is asking to direct a lot of money through states to local efforts to help youths get on track and stay there. It’s a good idea, but those states should come with data, not just dollars.