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Through new state laws and programs, states target help for jobless, 'disconnected' youths

by Laura Tomaka ~ December 2016 ~ Stateline Midwest »
Imagine being in your mid- to late 20s and walking into a workplace for the very first time as an employee. For many of today’s young Americans, this delayed entry into the workforce has become a harsh reality. During the Great Recession, unemployment rates soared for all age groups.
But young people were hit particularly hard: In April 2010, the jobless rate for people between the ages of 16 and 24 reached a record high of nearly 20 percent. Today, youth unemployment in the United States still tops 10 percent, more than double the overall jobless rate.
These federal unemployment figures only count people who are actively seeking work, and the disparity in jobless rates among different ages is not new. But there also is concern about the number of young people not being counted in the federal data — those who have dropped out of the labor market altogether.
Illinois Rep. Elgie Sims says his state has a “youth unemployment crisis,” one that is disproportionately affecting young people of color and those growing up in low-income communities. (Illinois has the Midwest’s highest jobless rate among 16- to 24-year-olds; see table below for state-by-state data.)
“I’m deeply concerned that they are not developing those early, productivity skills. … Then they come into the workforce a step behind,” Sims notes. “Teaching them in the classroom is one thing, but developing real-world habits through real-world experience is really what is going to be critical for their long-term success.”
People who do not hold jobs in their teens and early 20s are more likely to be unemployed later in life and less likely to rise to higher levels of employment. One estimate put the lifetime cost to taxpayers for young people who are not working or in school at more than $1.5 trillion.
And for states, the impact extends beyond lost tax revenue, says Tom Luna, senior vice president and chief governmental relations officer with the nonprofit group Project Lead the Way.
“There is a cultural value that we are also losing,” he says. “That is the culture of work and being productive and self-reliant. I think kids learn that better when they have [early] job opportunities. They learn to take pride in their work. They learn that they can contribute and be valuable.”
Outreach for ‘disconnected youth’
Sims’ concerns about the situation in Illinois led him this year to introduce and help pass HB 5668, which led to creation of the Youth Employment Task Force. By year’s end, this group — a cross-section of state agencies, community leaders, educators and business leaders — will submit recommendations for legislative and gubernatorial action.
HB 5668 requires the task force to examine not only the overall impact of youth unemployment in Illinois, but “its particular effect on young people of color, including recommendations on how to improve employment among young people of color.”
Nationwide, close to 14 percent of people between the ages of 16 and 24 are “disconnected,” meaning they are not in school and not working, according to the bipartisan national campaign Opportunity Nation. And these rates are especially high among minority groups in large metropolitan areas — for example, 24 percent of African Americans in Chicago and 25 percent of African Americans in Detroit (compared to 13 percent and 17 percent, respectively, of all 16- to 24-year-olds in those two cities).
“When these people lose hope, it generally manifests itself in a number of ways that are generally unhealthy,” says Sims, whose legislative district includes portions of Chicago’s South Side and south suburbs. “If we don’t recognize that these challenges exist, the violence you see in these communities is not going to go away.”
A state’s policy response to these challenges can take many forms — preventing students from dropping out; providing alternative pathways to a high school diploma; funding new work-based learning programs (apprenticeships and summer employment, for example); and opening new pathways to postsecondary education. And there are longer-term strategies for states to consider as well, including greater investments in evidence-based early-childhood programs that help build the social and emotional skills tied to long-term workforce success.
“If you look at the disconnected youth population, that group is quite heterogeneous. … You have to think about where they fall in the education-skill-employment spectrum,” says Farhana Hossain, a research associate with the MDRC, an education and social policy research organization.
Hossain notes, too, that various risk factors can pose barriers to employment. For example, is the “disconnected” young person homeless? Is he or she a parent who needs help with child care? Does he or she need access to medical and mental health care?
In Michigan, the charter school Covenant Academy has opened facilities in different parts of the state to work with high school dropouts as well as other at-risk young adults. The academy’s year-round schools serve individuals between the ages of 16 and 22.
“It helps folks who have dropped out or are facing other challenges [to employment]; a lot of them are homeless,” says Michigan Sen. Goeff Hansen, who helped secure state funding for the Muskegon Covenant Academy in fiscal year 2017.
“We are trying to make sure they get an education that they can use to break the cycle and be able to get jobs and support themselves and a family.”
Hansen sees promise in Covenant’s approach to helping disconnected youth earn a high school diploma, because in addition to providing classroom instruction, the school helps students access counseling, behavioral health care and other wrap-around services. Another approach being tried in Michigan is the use of “middle/early-college programs,” which allow students to stay in high school for an extra year, at no cost to them.
By the time they leave high school, these students sometimes have enough credits for an associate’s degree (they can start taking college classes as early as the ninth grade).
“Early college students graduate high school, earn college degrees or substantial college credit in high school, enter college, and persist in college at rates that surpass students nationwide,” according to a 2014 study from the nonprofit group Jobs for the Future.
Last year, Michigan lawmakers approved an additional $10 million in funding for school districts to create an early/middle college or invest in a career-technical education program.
Connecting youths to high-demand jobs
In a much-cited 2013 study examining the future of work, researchers at the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce estimated that by the end of this decade, two-thirds of U.S. jobs would require training and education beyond high school.
But “beyond high school” doesn’t necessarily mean earning a four-year college degree. In fact, the National Center for Workforce Skills has estimated (in a 2012 study) that 54 percent of all work is a “middle skills” job — requiring some level of education, credentials or training beyond high school, but not a four-year degree.
With these workforce trends in mind, policymakers have stepped up efforts to better connect education systems with the needs of employers in their state, or within a particular labor market of their state.
“I think we need to do a much better job helping kids in high school understand what’s available out there,” Iowa Rep. Dave Deyoe says. “There’s a tendency to push everyone into a four-year college, and that’s not [always] where the highest-earning fields are.”
This year, he and other lawmakers overhauled Iowa’s law governing local career and technical education (CTE) programs in the state.
CTE is a learning approach that provides students with technical skills and knowledge to prepare them for careers or further education after high school. Iowa’s reforms in 2016 included better aligning local CTE course offerings with the needs of students, employers and the labor market. In addition, students will be taught about the workforce earlier in their K-12 education careers and offered more work-based learning opportunities.
Nationally, 2.5 million high school and college students are enrolled in a CTE program. In Iowa, the high school population of CTE students is nearly 100,000.
Deyoe also was involved in getting legislation passed in Iowa a few years ago to expand the state’s apprenticeship program, which connects students in community colleges to local employers. With an apprenticeship, students learn a skill or trade on the job while being paid. They also typically earn industry credentials and/or postsecondary credits. These apprenticeships are usually offered in high-demand fields; as a result, individuals who complete the programs are often hired into permanent positions.
Since 2014, Iowa has tripled its investment in apprenticeships (currently at $3 million). Companies in more than 1,000 occupations in high-demand fields are eligible for the state’s training grants. They include apprenticeships in manufacturing, construction, health care, transportation, energy and culinary arts. Apprentices can start at the age of 16.
According to Deyoe, this ability for students to “earn while they learn” has opened up career pathways in a number of “middle skill” careers — for example, as welders, tool and die makers, diesel mechanics, heating and cooling technicians, electricians and plumbers.
Aligning curricula to labor market needs
In Illinois, along with creating a task force to begin addressing the problem of youth unemployment, Rep. Sims has been working with businesses to get a better idea of what they want and need from workers.
“Then in partnership with education, we can establish curriculum that can match what [businesses] are telling us,” he says.
One idea, for example, is to create a vocational education a curriculum that focuses on careers in high-skilled manufacturing — the subject of legislation that Sims introduced earlier this year (HB 5570) and that he plans to revisit. And if a state’s schools succeed at bringing more real-world skills to K-12 instruction, Luna says, they may keep some young people from getting disinterested in school and, ultimately, disconnected.
“The more engaged they will be in their education, the more relevance they will see to what they are learning, and the more likely they will be to choose those kinds of courses that are going to help them be better prepared for the workforce,” he adds.


Policy trends, strategies in Midwest on youth employment and training


Signed into law earlier this year, Illinois’ Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness Act (HB 5729) seeks to better align the expectations of colleges and employers with the state’s K-12 system. Starting with instruction in the eighth grade, students will explore future careers and get an understanding of what is expected in college and the workplace. They also will have the chance to earn career and college readiness endorsements on their high school diplomas through an individualized learning plan.
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In Indiana’s 2015 biennial budget (HB 1001), lawmakers changed the distribution of funds for career and technical education programs, including an increase in state grants for courses linked to high-wage/high-demand career fields.
In the first major overhaul of the state’s career and technical education system since 1989, Iowa lawmakers passed HF 2392 earlier this year. With the new law in place, local CTE programs will be expected to align their course offerings with the needs of students and state employers; integrate career guidance into a student’s educational experience; teach students about the workforce at an earlier age; and expand student access to work-based learning.
Since the 2012-13 school year, Kansas high school students have had the chance to receive state-funded college tuition by taking technical courses offered by technical and community colleges. A local school district also gets an incentive for each of its students who graduates with an industry-recognized credential in a high-need occupation. More than 10,000 students have participated in the Career Technical Education Initiative (SB 155) each of the last two years.
Michigan’s 2016 budget bill included a $10 million increase in funding for the state’s career and technical education programs as well as early/middle colleges. Early/middle college programs allow students to stay in high school an extra year (at no extra cost to them) as they take college courses. Some students in these programs attain not only a high school diploma, but an associate’s degree as well.
Under a $5 million pilot program approved last year by Minnesota legislators (SB 5), the state will cover tuition and fees for students seeking a credential in designated high-demand program areas at 30 of the state’s community and technical colleges. This “last-dollar scholarship” program (meaning it takes care of any expenses not covered by state or federal grant aid) began with the 2016 fall term and will run through the 2017-18 academic year. Recipients cannot have an annual income of more than $90,000.
In 2015, Nebraska lawmakers created the Community College Gap Assistance Program (LB 519). The program provides financial assistance to low-income students enrolled in noncredit programs in high-demand career fields — for example, transportation, bioscience, agriculture, renewable energy, health services, hospitality and tourism. These students are not eligible for federal financial aid because they are not enrolled in courses that lead directly to a degree. The program began on July 1 at six Nebraska community colleges.
Since 2009, North Dakota lawmakers have funded Operation Intern in order to expand the number of new internships, work experiences and apprenticeships available to young people. The state’s most recent budget appropriated $1.5 million for the program (compared to an original funding level of $600,000). North Dakota businesses can receive up to $3,000 in state matching grants for each student intern and up to a total of $30,000 every two years. The program is run through the state’s Department of Commerce.
The goal of a new pilot program in Ohio (established in the state’s current budget) is to deliver comprehensive career counseling services to students starting in the seventh grade and lasting through 12th grade. Up to $1 million was appropriated annually for the pilot program. A handful of local vocational schools and school districts will participate; they are expected to connect young people to “career mentors” and provide opportunities for experiential learning.
In 2014, South Dakota voters approved a ballot measure that increased the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $8.50 per hour. The following year, the Legislature passed a bill exempting workers under the age of 18 from the $8.50 minimum wage. Lawmakers argued that a lower wage for young people would give them a better chance of finding a first job. However, via a veto referendum this fall, voters rejected the Legislature’s youth-wage bill.
Wisconsin has one of the nation’s oldest youth apprenticeship programs. First created in 1991, the state-funded initiative allows students to explore career options while earning a wage and gaining work experience. During the 2015-16 school year, more than 3,000 Wisconsin students participated in a youth apprenticeship and earned an average wage of $9.62 per hour. The leading industries for these youth apprenticeships in Wisconsin are manufacturing, health services, and agriculture, food and natural resources.




A high school diploma is a critical first step to workforce success, and graduation rates are on the rise

For states looking to improve the long-term success of their young people — in the workforce and beyond — one crucial step is raising high school graduation rates. Over the course of their lives, individuals who drop out of a state’s K-12 system earn less and have a harder time finding work compared to their counterparts.
And these disparities in the labor market begin to show very early on. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, recent high school graduates not attending college are much more likely to be employed than their peers who have dropped out of high school: an employment-to-population ratio of 51.7 percent vs. 28.7 percent.
Most people do graduate from high school, and for each of the past five years, the numbers have hit all-time highs. Nationwide, the graduation rate was 83.2 percent for the 2014-15 school year. Across the Midwest, graduation rates have improved since 2010, and most states in the region have rates higher than the national average (the two exceptions are Michigan and Ohio).
“I think everyone would agree that we are doing some things better, but it’s not an indication that our work is done,” says Tom Luna, senior vice president and chief governmental relations officer with the national education organization Project Lead The Way.
According to Luna, states should continue looking for ways to bring more rigor and relevance to K-12 instruction, and to ensure “the diploma has value and that it is recognition of what a student really does know and what a student can do.”
There is some debate over whether the recent rise in graduation rates reflects a true advancement of the nation’s education system, or simply a lowering of expectations or requirements (for example, granting multiple types of diplomas that allow students to take less-rigorous coursework).
Education experts, though, do point to state and local policy changes that likely have contributed to higher graduation rates, from new school-accountability laws and the closure of underperforming schools, to new initiatives that offer students alternative pathways to a diploma. And in states such as Iowa (which has one of the nation’s highest graduation rates among all students as well as among low-income students), programs are in place to help disadvantaged young people make it to the finish line of their K-12 careers. Examples include free day care, smaller class sizes and flexible scheduling.
Over the past few years, graduation rates have increased among all races and ethnic groups, and the U.S. achievement gap has narrowed. Still, there remains a significant disparity in graduation rates between white and black students (13 percentage points) and white and Hispanic students (10 percentage points). Gaps remain, too, between lower-income students and their peers (see table).