Most youth employment programs struggle to find ways to open the doors to job opportunities. They face major external challenges including a lack of funding, employer bias against hiring youth, and the growing gap between youth skill levels and those demanded by the labor market.
But there is another internal reason why youth employment programs struggle: many lack a strategic plan for employer engagement.
When I work with youth employment programs, I look at two things: the amount of time put into planning and strategizing about how to recruit, engage and serve youth, and the amount of time put into how to engage employers. More often than not, the latter is a grain of sand on the beach, and the former is the rest of the beach.
When you do education, mental health or substance abuse work with youth, the dynamic is between the youth and the program. When you do employment, the dynamic is between the youth, the program and employers. But many youth employment programs find themselves challenged to embrace work with employers at a deep level.
I understand the mistrust of the business community. Much of it is based on their poor track record with youth employment. I do not advocate working with every business but there are businesses that can be worthy partners if you understand their world. If youth employment programs are going to get their youth far beyond the working poor, developing strategic alliances with businesses is critical.
Most youth employment program managers think of their work from a single client focus, and that client is the youth. I think they would be much more effective if they functioned from a dual client model where they saw their role as the broker that creates relationships between youth and private sector businesses. The vast majority of the leadership of youth employment programs are from social services, education, nonprofit and advocacy work.
This serves them well in relationship to youth, but not in relationship to businesses. They do not know the world of the private sector and they are challenged to figure out how to engage them.
This does a disservice to the youth who lack the social capital to connect with these business people. If the program has social capital with employers, it can open up the doors to jobs where youth are hired because the employer’s trust in the program means more than the limited work experience on a resume.
How can the leaders of these programs go about developing strategic plans for working with the private sector? First, they have to make a strong and deep commitment to learning the world of the private sector. One place to start is with their placement services. If they think of those services as a personnel business and not a social service, they can learn to plan it like a business.
This could mean getting mentored in business planning by a successful entrepreneur who is on the board of the program. It could mean going to the local Small Business Development Center and taking a class in business planning. Another possibility would be to look for a retired businessperson to guide you in this process.
Getting involved in a business association is a critical step in becoming a respected part of the world of business. Just as program leaders have immersed themselves in the world of youth, they need to overcome their resistance and immerse themselves in the world of the private sector.
This is where you will create the best opportunities for youth. You will also become a voice that educates business people about the strengths and not just the problems of the youth we serve. This can all be done without losing the soul or values of the program. You do not become a business, you become part of the world of business.
The leaders of effective youth employment programs know how to think like youth and respect them. That is what makes their programs effective. When the leaders of youth employment programs learn to think like private sector business people and respect them, they can help open the doors to more and better career opportunities for youth.
Larry Robbin, executive director of Robbin and Associates, has over forty-five years of national experience in the youth workforce development field.