A Youth Perspective on Workforce Development for Young People

The National Youth Employment Coalition supports a variety of programs that put youth on the path towards gainful employment. Among these programs, supporting summer opportunities for academic and career development goes a long way to putting youth one step closer to being able to earn a sustainable wage. My name is Eashan Kaw, and as the policy intern at NYEC during the summer, I feel that I am in a position to provide a perspective of how opportunities like summer internships have contributed to my experiential learning beyond the scope of the college lecture hall.

When discussing solutions to the achievement and earnings gap, measures that improve classroom education loom large in the conversation. And it’s true, refreshing old instructional methods and reforming K-12 education is instrumental in nudging youth toward a brighter future. But we would be remiss to ignore the role work opportunities outside of the classroom play in turning youth into productive employees and citizens. Youth activities within the Workforce Investment Act bridge the gap between the classroom and workplace by placing disadvantaged youth into summer employment opportunities, work experiences, and other skills development programs.

Dealing with little details is how I’ve been learning the thought process required to evaluate changes in policy proposed in the bills. I can confidently say there was no class I took that prepared me for the at times labyrinthine, but ultimately rewarding experience of combing through hundreds of pages of legislative wonk-speak to find a policy change I was seeking. At times, navigating the sections, subsections, and sub-headers seemed like unpacking hundreds of verbose Russian nesting dolls. But embedded within an innocuous looking subsection would lie updated language informing the direction of future youth policy. Classroom instruction can cultivate a mindset and cognitive tools a person can use to judge the merits of a program, but nothing I encountered specifically prepared me for the unique syntax legislators use to draft bills. Other work I did, like writing blog posts, analyzing employment and graduation data, and researching legislation, provided ample opportunity to interpret and make judgments on real-world and often ambiguous information that can affect a number of stakeholders.

The broad takeaway I’ve learned through working this summer is while many tasks I had to complete were concretely defined, the means to solve the problem were up to me. Even if the specific task at hand was to write a report on monthly employment changes, I had the freedom to gather data however I wanted and add analysis I thought was prudent. This is usually the opposite of classroom learning, where the applications are abstractly defined, but the acceptable method for completing an assignment is confined to what the teacher wants you to use.   Working on the types of assignments typically done in full-time jobs provides an indicator that the education AND skills you bring with you are useful to employers in the marketplace. This is critical for professional development after finishing classroom education.

Summer work opportunities also provide valuable insight into finding out what careers fit well with your interests, what you are talented at, and what jobs you thought you liked, but actually didn’t. Being armed with this information allows you to choose future work options well-matched with your strengths and interests. Unfortunately, many youth across America do not have the same access to education, summer opportunities, and experiences that have enabled me to make what I have learned in school relevant to the workplace. That only underscores the importance of updating youth programs within the WIA, and increasing workforce development investments for those who need it most.

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