Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Thoughts about doing better for the city's youth

If you're not familiar with the new blog UnSectored, you are missing out on something special.   This online space focuses on "working towards social change in ways that cut across sectors and elevate the dialogue beyond a sectored paradigm."   The UnSectored blog
isn’t about nonprofits. It isn’t about for-profits. Not social entrepreneurship, nor social enterprise, nor social innovation. It’s about using the tools around us to solve the problems before us. It’s about seeing the world in a different way, creating a more connected society to live in, and a better life for all.

Let's take the November 8 post We Can Do Better as an example of the roles various sectors play in the issue of youth employment and disengagement.   UnSectored blog author Allison Corbett, currently working at a Northern Virginia non-profit in adult ESL education, briefly reviews the new Brookings Institute report Strengthening Educational and Career Pathways for D.C. Youth and supplements it with a summary of roles for numerous sectors and an appeal for other ideas.

Read Corbett's post below.


"The District can and should do better."

This is an oft-repeated theme in the new report from the Brookings Institute, Strengthening Educational and Career Pathways for D.C. Youth, published this October. The report is peppered with charts obtained from survey data, bulleted recommendations, and a surprisingly clear message about what needs to happen in the District to improve educational and employment opportunities for DC’s youth.

The Diagnosis
The report concludes that DC youth are far too disconnected from employment, educational, and economic opportunities. The importance of post-secondary education is growing and has a direct impact on the future earning potential of individuals. It also identifies preparation for employment and post-secondary education as critical to an effective transition to adulthood.

Though much attention is paid to the abundance of jobs in the city, employment statistics in the District are dismal. In fact, "unemployment in Washington, D.C. is consistently higher than national and regional averages. In July 2011, unemployment in the District reached 10.8 percent, compared to 6.3 percent in the region." Unemployment stats for youth are downright shocking: There’s a 17 percent unemployment rate among youth 20-24, and one in two 16-19 are unemployed.

Among the report’s central concerns are the lack of coordination and collaboration between the various youth service-delivery providers in DC and the lack of alternatives for those not pursuing a four-year degree.

The report highlights the potential damage that such a strict emphasis on funneling students into four-year institutions can have for those not likely to pursue that path. According to national statistics, they report "only about 30 percent of Americans earn a four-year degree by their mid-twenties, showing that the 'college for all' approach is not translating into the desired outcomes.' Significant gains in earnings can be achieved by attaining two-year degrees and certificates. In fact, as many liberal arts graduates have realized during this Great Recession, "certificates with real value in the labor market can sometimes out earn higher education levels." For example, "a person holding an engineering certificate earns more on average ($47,000) than a person holding an AA in the liberal arts or a BA in education."

The Prescription
The report’s recommendations detail the ways that DC institutions and organizations can improve their youth employment programs through improved coordination and communication. The Brookings Institute partnered with the Center on Law and Social Policy (CLASP) to research best practices and lay out recommendations to improve DC’s youth employment delivery system. (These are presented in a separate report, Building a Comprehensive Youth Employment Delivery System: Examples of Effective Practice.)

Based on this research, Brookings recommends, among other things, that: the District adopts a goal stating by 2022, 90 percent of DC youth will earn a post-secondary credential and obtain full-time work by the age of 24; develops clear engagement points for employers; works to improve the programs supporting youth transition into a successful adulthood; and dramatically improves the city’s capacity to generate and use data.

For the Unsector
The Brookings Institute seems to be calling for an unsectored effort to address the problem of disconnected DC youth. Essential to the success of such improvement efforts is a collaborative and pan-systemic approach to strengthening the pathways between education, job preparation, and employment. Employers across all sectors must be engaged in providing opportunities for youth and communicating their needs to youth service-providers, non-profits, and schools. Policy makers can play a huge role in creating systems and spaces that create cohesion and offer central bodies through which policies and practices can be debated and decided.

With so many students falling behind, failing out, and ending up unemployed, how can we serve them better? What else does the unsector have to offer to bridge the gaps that these "disconnected" youth fall through?

This was originally posted on the blog UnSectored. You can read the original post here.

Some of my thoughts about how other sectors can help address this important issue are:

  • Family engagement in education is essential.   DC Public Schools is making an effort to do just this, in part by asking parents what they need and incorporating the ideas in the Parent Resource Centers RFP.
  • Truancy must be dramatically reduced.   At-large CM David Catania is addressing this issue in legislation (see the CM's website).   Last year, Ward 6 CM Tommy Wells also took on this issue (more here).
  • Bolstering parenting skills.   With so many parents working multiple jobs or trying to make ends meet, there is often little time for quality interaction with their children.   Unfortunately, some parents still rely on "old-school" parenting while others do little parenting at all.   Others are just too tired to seek out better ways.
  • Reducing reliance on youth earnings.   I've long held that too much emphasis is placed on serving a gazillion teens in the Summer Youth Employment Program in order to bolster family earnings.   Giving young people quality work experience is an entirely different issue than family poverty and should be treated differently in policy and practice.
What are your ideas?   Join the conversation by leaving some comments on UnSectored.