Guest Review: Young Workers Hit Hard By COVID

Guest review written by Grace Heffernan, Senior Project Manager, Thomas P. Miller Associates

Cuyahoga County’s youngest workers face the most desperate employment prospects since the Great Depression. An estimated 21,000 young adults aged 16-24 in Cuyahoga County are disconnected from both work and school (The $44,000 Question) and the resulting impacts of this disconnection go well beyond negative employment outcomes to include an increased likelihood of experiencing health problems and encountering the criminal justice system. The arrival of COVID-19 has further exacerbated this disconnection. Given what we know about young people being the hardest hit by and the last to recover from recessions, the situation is dire, particularly for young people of color who experience these negative impacts disproportionately.

Now more than ever, young people need connections to good fit employment opportunities.  “Good fit jobs are defined differently based on young adults’ priorities, but generally they are found in companies where management practices support young adults’ ability to retain employment, help employees learn and advance at work, use scheduling practices that support a young adult’s need to balance work, school, and family care responsibilities, and pay family sustaining wages.”

In Northeast Ohio, the Generation Work partnership, funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, aims to support the development of a coordinated and accessible workforce system that blends positive youth development and demand-driven strategies to build quality career pathways for young people of all backgrounds. To that end, the Northeast Ohio and other local Generation Work partnerships worked with The Aspen Institute to gather information about conversations happening with businesses as they build “good fits.”  The report by The Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program called, “Voice from the Field: Engaging Employers to Connect Young Adults to Good Fit Employment” shares insights from survey results from 210 workforce professionals in Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Philadelphia about the types of conversations they have with employers on topics related to workplace practices, environment, equity, and inclusion in the workforce.

The headline from the report is simple: workforce professionals need to talk often and regularly with employers about a broad range of job quality and race equity issues so we both can work to ensure young people are placed in good fit jobs.  Having a learning-focused engagement with employers can help identify strategies that advance economic stability and mobility for young adult workers. This is increasingly important work given that young adults, and in particular young adults of color, constitute the fastest growing segment of the US labor pool.

If we are serious about economic recovery for young people, we must also be serious about finding good fit jobs for young people. This will require that workforce professionals fundamentally shift the types of conversations we have with employers, to better understand the work environment and ensure it is a “good fit” for the young worker. To help guide these conversations, Generation Work developed the Employer Engagement Question Bank as a tool to equip employer engagement staff to engage with businesses to find good fits for the young people they serve. It helps build staff capacity to learn more about employer situations, with a goal of educating employers about practices that will allow young people to be more successful

If we want to see radical positive change for Cuyahoga County’s young adults, the workforce field must find new ways to engage with employers, and in doing so, we can build our capacity to identify employers with strong commitments to race equity and job quality – a win for all workers.