Changing Workforce Development Systems to Better Serve Young Adults and Advance Equity

The First Five Years of Generation Work

Many employers across the United States have difficulties maintaining a skilled workforce. Yet unemployment among young people ages 16 to 29 years is well above the overall unemployment rate. In 2016, 8.2 percent of this group was unemployed, as was 13.8 percent off Black young adults, compared with 4.9 percent nationally.

In 2016, the Annie E. Casey Foundation launched Generation WorkTM to connect more young adults—especially those of color from families with low incomes—with meaningful employment by changing the way workforce systems prepare them and support their search for jobs. As part of the initiative, it asked partnerships comprising key workforce organizations in five cities to better align education, training, and support services across organizations and to weave into their systems best practices related to youth and racial equity.

The Casey Foundation asked MDRC to conduct a study examining the experiences of the five partnerships implementing Generation Work and to ascertain lessons for the partnerships, practitioners, policymakers, and funders.

Most of the Generation Work partnerships pursued three broad strategies designed to change:

  1. policies or regulations to improve system coordination, including influencing the priorities of public funders to increase resources for the system and changing funding allocation systems to encourage collaboration across organizations
  2. workforce-related organizations’ interactions with each other to better serve young adults, such as co-locating service providers and fostering trust and collaboration among organizations
  3. the practices of workforce organizations, including incorporating a racial equity lens into their work, using organizations’ data to identify problems and solutions, and providing staff with professional development and training

The partnerships’ experiences demonstrated that, in order to change a workforce system, leaders must first clearly articulate a broad vision that they and their staff across organizations share and will work together to achieve. For this to happen, senior leaders had to trust each other and agree on their approach, and to build trust among staff across organizations. Their experiences also showed that external funders can play an important facilitating role.

All Generation Work partnerships encouraged organizations to adopt practices aimed at improving outcomes for young adults and making them more equitable. To that end, they undertook a number of activities, including using data to better understand the challenges young adults face, training staff on racial equity, creating spaces for staff to explore equity issues and brainstorm solutions, and procuring technical assistance to help organizations.

Grossman, Jean, M. Victoria Quiroz Becerra, Betsy L. Tessler, and Gilda Azurdia. 2023. Changing Workforce Development Systems to Better Serve Young Adults and Advance Equity. New York: MDRC.