August 18, 2015; New Orleans Advocate

Young adults, ages 16–24, need additional skills and resources to be competitive in the ever-changing job market. According to the Brookings Institution, approximately 45 percent of the job openings in the next ten years will be in “middle level” jobs, those that may require a high school diploma but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree.

As schools prepare students to be career- and college-ready, a number of young adults are being left behind because of a lack of interest and engagement in school. Others face additional barriers that make school success difficult to attain. Emerging and existing programs are working to fill this gap by helping students build on skills they already have while also learning how to refine those skills and leverage them into paid employment.

The Youth Empowerment Project in New Orleans started its Work and Learn program as a way to reengage young adults and provide them with opportunities to learn specific trade skills along with networking and other “soft skills” that would provide them with the tools, resources, and the confidence necessary to find stable employment and disrupt chronic unemployment trends.

The key YEP found is to tap into the expertise and experiences that students bring with them, which they might not recognize as marketable job skills. D’eshon, a featured Youth Empowerment Program student, had always been interested in fixing things, so when he learned he could be connected with the Work and Learn center bike shop, he knew he could handle it. The Work and Learn center bike shop allows D’eshon and other youth to take the skills they have and apply them within specific markets while working with real customers. Not only do they further develop their technical skills, they learn other marketable, job-embedded skills that will help them find and secure steady employment, all under the guidance of skilled and caring adults.

Big Picture Learning is another education nonprofit that’s working to bring this type of student-centered and interest-based learning into the classroom as a tool for engaging students and helping them build career skills as part of their academic preparation, rather than as something separate. The learning-through-interests aspect of Big Picture Learning allows students to follow their passions by interning with adults in the community who are engaged in work that connects to the students’ interests. This real-world learning starts with the student at the center, allowing him or her to see how their interest and passion is connected to the world of work. Students have the opportunity to try different fields of interest while using project-based learning to tie their academic requirements to real-world experiences.

Both of these programs focus on connecting youth to adults in the workforce, teaching valuable networking skills that translate beyond a single experience, and empowering them to find meaningful work that builds on their own interests and experiences.

Workforce and career-readiness programs designed to build the capacity of young adults while putting their existing talents and expertise to use will help them transition into potential careers they might never have imagined for themselves.—Kari Thierer