Bridging the Disconnect

On Monday, the New York Board of Regents approved a plan to allow New York students to use one of 13 new exams in Career and Technical Education (CTE) to meet one of their graduation requirements.  There seems to be broad-based support for this and claims are being touted that this change will help many teenagers stay motivated in high school and get ready for jobs that pay well.  Would that it would!  While I certainly laud this new Regent exam option, as Russ Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, noted in a Daily News article “It’s a good first step and acknowledges the reality of the economy. But it’s insufficient and will fail…if it doesn’t involve a serious investment in apprenticeships.” I would expand upon that to note the need for an employment focused ecosystem for youth, inclusive of apprenticeships and clear, digital badge-based pathways that link to learning and level up to prospective livelihoods.

A blueprint of sorts for what would be entailed in creating a citywide approach to youth employment is contained in a stellar, and sobering, report published in September by the Center for an Urban Future (CUF) called Bridging the Disconnect.  The report is well worth reading from cover to cover but, given its 50 page length, reading this blog might be more efficient and realistic for most (A few tweets would probably be even better, but there’s simply too much richness to render in 140 characters—or perhaps even 140,000 characters…)  The report assesses the strengths and shortcomings of the city’s youth workforce development programs, identifies the challenges facing administrators and practitioners, and offers recommendations for addressing the system’s flaws, delivering stronger outcomes for youth, and providing greater return on public and philanthropic investment.  It concludes that a new level of focus and a new approach is essential to improving the city’s youth workforce development system.  Stark though the current situation is, we have a wonderful opportunity to rethink the when, where, and how of workforce development, and I have some strong thoughts on this front.  But first, some context and data:

The report details that since 2000, the percentage of 16 to 24 year olds participating in the labor market across NYC has fallen from 45% to 29%, while the unemployment rate for this group has spiked from 13% to 20%.  Now that might not seem so alarming given that many of these years are prime school-attending age but, disquietingly, approximately one out of every five New Yorkers in this age bracket—an estimated 172,000 in all—are neither working nor in school, by far the largest number in any city in the United States.   In 2012, among the nation’s 100 largest metro areas, New York City ranked 92nd in the rate of 16-19 year olds employed, and 97th for 20-24 year olds.  For this New Yorker who likes to think of NYC as being #1, we are WAY off the mark.

Well, that’s a shame, you might be thinking, but young people don’t NEED to work to the same degree as folks in, say, their later 20s and beyond and in this sluggish hiring climate, we need to focus on jobs for people more established in their lives.  But for youth, unemployment and marginalization can have long-term consequences. Research has shown that employment is “path dependent”: individuals who work in their mid-teens are more likely to work in their late teens, and more likely to have steady employment and higher earning power into their 20s and beyond. The converse is also true: individuals who aren’t employed during their teens are less likely to work consistently as they transition into adulthood. 

The report expresses another unsettling root of youth unemployment:  too many young adults lack the educational foundation, demonstrable skills, and work experience that today’s employers demand.  It is this root that gives rise to what I think is the most critical takeaway: that we MUST invest in career exposure and preparation earlier and create clearer trajectories that equip students for success in sustainable employment.  To be clear, I am not suggesting that this be at the expense of a rich "liberal arts" curriculum in HS but that it complement current offerings through expanded learning opportunities and a richer array of apprenticeship and internship options.

The report asserts that New York City’s youth workforce development system falls far short of what is needed. Youth-focused workforce programs reach only a tiny fraction of the young adults who could benefit from employment and training services.  The numbers are staggering: In 2013, DYCD’s signature workforce initiative, the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), provided summer jobs to just 35,957 individuals, 17% fewer than in 2008 and 29% less than in 2000. Perhaps even more alarming, DYCD’s four other workforce programs served fewer than 5,000 youth combined last year (40% fewer than in 2010)  The two DYCD workforce programs focused on disconnected youth—the Out-of-School Youth program (OSY) and Young Adult Internship Program (YAIP)— combined to serve just 2,835 New Yorkers last year, less than2% of the city’s estimated disconnected youth population

These declining enrollment numbers contrast with increasing demand. Indeed, 73% of the 135,388 applicants last year were turned away. Between 2010 and 2013, DYCD could not place more than 410,000 applicants to SYEP.

This is not to cast aspersions on city agencies, for their shortcomings are all but predetermined by the paucity of resources. While overall city expenditures increased by 14.6 percent between fiscal years 2008 to 2013, DYCD’s expenditures declined by 15.5 percent.

While limited resources pose a significant constraint, there are also serious flaws with the way the city’s youth workforce programs are structured and delivered, which  too often do little to help young people build skills and connect with decent-paying jobs. The report asserts that a core shortcoming of the city’s youth workforce development system is that services are poorly aligned to the life circumstances and developmental needs of the young people who need assistance, the majority of which have at most a high school degree or equivalency, limited or no work experience, and face significant barriers to employment—from chronic health issues to unstable housing arrangements. Most simply aren’t ready to succeed in a workplace, and need assistance that goes well beyond finding a job, yet too few of the city’s workforce programs are structured with this in mind. Most do not offer opportunities for young people to explore career options, provide youth with sufficient time to build skills and prepare for employment, or furnish them with a range of services.  Workforce development and education are considered entirely different things and opportunities for integration have largely been overlooked.

Of course, as the adage goes, our systems are perfectly designed to achieve the outcomes they (don’t) produce.  The Workforce Investment Act (WIA), which has guided federal job training and workforce preparation programs since 1998, has not been good for youth-focused workforce development.  WIA prioritizes and rewards quick attachment to the labor force: actual job placement is the only career outcome on which the federal government evaluates each area’s WIA performance. Yet what is most needed in youth workforce service is not to make a short-term job match, but rather to build a foundation for long-term labor market success.  Unfortunately, organizations cannot use WIA funds to pay for services that might better support long-term outcomes, such as fellowships, subsidized internships, or opportunities to learn about different possible career paths and better define their interests and goals.  As such, as a city, we must think very strategically about how to supplement this funding base, and what role philanthropy, private industry, and citizen support can play in helping create more holistic approaches and longer-term continuum.

Th report highlights two standout successes in DYCD’s portfolio of workforce initiatives—Ladders for Leaders, a program track within SYEP, and the Young Adult Internship Program (YAIP), both of which generally draw praise from the field. Ladders for Leaders is the sole DYCD effort that boasts truly strong employer connections, and YAIP is alone among DYCD’s workforce programs in having received a rigorous quantitative evaluation that showed strong results.   These programs should be analyzed and expanded, since the report critiques the balance of DYCD’s workforce portfolio as being more problematic along two lines. 1) Most of its programs lack strong connections with employers—a crucial flaw if the goal is to prepare young people for the world of work; and 2) most of the programs offer low-value work experiences with no connection to participants’ school experiences or career interests. The report quotes a workforce expert who notes that “SYEP is just warehousing kids in the summer.  You have kids sitting in auditoriums with nothing to do. The kids get no training. They develop bad habits.”  This is a ripe opportunity for digital badges to provide criteria for the kinds of work experiences students should be having, and the kinds of hard and soft skills and knowledge they should be building, and to subsequently be able to capture and convey the skills accrued for educators and future employers, thereby better aligning workforce development and education.

In sum, the consensus of youth practitioners and policy experts is the CUF report is that the majority of DYCD’s workforce development programs frequently fall short of helping young people build skills, determine their career goals OR gain valuable workplace experiences.  While this critique cannot be overlooked, it's important to also acknowledge and applaud the magnitude of the challenges DYCD faces in implementing their programs, and how vital a role SYEP plays in the lives of so many high-needs youth who would have no access to employment absent it.  Now is the time to redouble efforts to expand and enhance SYEP and related programs for the demands and opportunities facing our city today and tomorrow.


Lest we lament the current context too much, it is important to note that the outlook is not entirely bleak.  There are some amazing organizations and investments to build upon.  The report praises a number of effective youth workforce providers, from community-based organizations to nationally recognized models such as FEGS, Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow (OBT), and The Door among others that utilize blended funding from public and private sources. The report also lauds technical assistance providers Youth Development Institute (YDI) and Workforce Professionals Training Institute, as well as JobsFirstNYC, a youth-focused intermediary that advocates for policy change and has launched several highly promising pilot initiatives.

Further, NYC’s philanthropic sector is heroic on this front, supporting many of the best youth workforce providers and funds innovative approaches that restricted government dollars cannot pay for, thanks in large part to the New York City Workforce Funders.  In 2013, private funders collectively invested approximately $28 million in youth-focused workforce programs and related services in 2013—an amount larger than the city’s WIA Youth allocation from the federal government.

Further, Mayor DeBlasio has signified a strong commitment to these issues, pledging a new focus on job training and skills building in his inaugural State of the City address.  The FY 2015 city budget includes a new investment of $15.2 million from the City Council that will enable an additional 10,700 young people to participate in SYEP in Summer 2015.  The Mayor convened the Jobs for New Yorkers Task Force to provide ideas for overhauling city workforce development programs, and created an Office of Workforce Development to better coordinate the many city agencies and offices involved with job training and workforce preparation programs.  

The CUF report recommends that Mayor de Blasio and the City Council must go further, making tackling the youth employment crisis a top priority, taking bold steps to address the problem, and setting ambitious goals for reducing youth unemployment across the five boroughs. *I’ve* got some suggestions for those bold steps, and am gratified that they largely accord with CUF’s, with some additional emphases.  

At the most basic level, the two areas to target are capacity and structure.   Capacity, of course, is deeply impinged upon by resources, which have been severely constrained: WIA youth funds for New York City have plummeted from $43.3 million in 2000 to $21.4 million in 2013.  

On the up side, creativity thrives in constraint, and the fiscal constraint necessitates some radical rethinking, which is sorely needed.  The report concludes that the system will require a massive overhaul in order to improve how services are delivered to youth and young adults in order to deliver real value for the city.  What we need is to create a unified youth workforce system integrated with the education system for New York City.  The new CTE Regents provides added opportunity—and added urgency—on this front

The report makes wonderful recommendations which should be read in their entirely (pp 38-43.) I’d like to underscore and amplify a few that are particularly vital, and raise a few that weren’t raised or given as much attention as I think they warrant.


In (almost) every (big thorny) problem, there is an acorn of opportunity to evolve a more effective approach.

BIG THORNY PROBLEM #1: ABSENCE OF INTEGRATED SERVICES.  While DYCD, SBS, and HRA each have their own problems in how they deliver workforce services to youth and young adults, the agencies also have failed to align their programs to offer integrated services for young New Yorkers in need.  Compounding the problem, public youth workforce contracts create disincentives for nonprofit providers to work collaboratively to provide the continuum of services young people need in order to become self-sufficient. As a result, most individuals receive only the services that any one provider may offer—not the services they most need.  Currently, there’s almost no funding to support career pathway work for youth or that supports more direct engagement with employers.  Figuring out 1) what jobs they might want 2) what skills they’ll need 3) how to attain those skills is very complicated for most human beings of any age and any class; to expect teenagers from under-resourced communities to figure this out is magical thinking, and the absence of guided (optional) pathways is actively at odds with improving outcomes for youth and for our city.

RECOMMENDATION A: CREATE MORE CROSS-INSTITUTIONAL PARTNERSHIPS AND SEAMLESS COORDINATION.   A stronger central entity to set systemic goals, facilitate and coordinate information-sharing, and build stronger partnerships with the private, philanthropic, and non-profit sectors could fuel significant gains. Under a more effective youth system, city agencies could create a more seamless experience for youth and reduce compliance burdens for providers by coordinating case management and building shared systems. A central entity—the report recommends the newly created Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development—could serve to set strategy, analyze how practitioners can best meet labor market needs, and support stronger relationships with employers.  A key priority for this entity should be improving communication and collaboration across agencies.

The CUF report is wonderful in spotlighting other cities' initiatives that NYC can learn from.  It notes that 10 years ago, the system in Los Angeles looked much like the uncoordinated proliferation of programs that New York has today, with no consistency or leveraging of partnerships.  Looking to improve outcomes, LA commissioned a study to uncover the needs of disconnected youth.  This led to the creation of one-stop YouthSource Centers run by community- based organizations and counselors whose salaries are jointly paid by the school district and the nonprofit (thereby providing the added benefit that since the counselors are thus considered school employees, they have access to student records, which can be a big barrier in nonlinked partnerships.) Good Shepherd Services and other community centers provide such an approach, which should be harnessed and scaled.

RECOMMENDATION B: MORE CLOSELY INTEGRATE EDUCATION AND WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT.  The Department of Education is effectively the largest human capital development agency for young people in the city, yet focusing on workforce outcomes of young people has not been a core thrust. The DOE has paid concerted attention to postsecondary outcomes over the past five years, but that has focused almost exclusively around college.  The DOE should work with DYCD and private funders to create career exploration programs starting in middle school, the point at which many youth development experts suggest children can start thinking in earnest about their future paths.  The Department has been developing a series of career maps that chart advancement pathways within a number of key New York City industries, including information technology, transportation, media and advertising, and culinary arts among others. If designed well, and embedded in a career exploration curriculum, these maps could help spark interest among students in a wide range of careers, and illustrate the skill and educational achievements that are necessary in order to advance in those careers.

RECOMMENDATION C: LOOSEN THE STRANGLEHOLD OF SHORT TERM OUTCOMES AND INVEST IN A CURRENCY THAT CAN PAVE THE PATH FOR LONGER TERM OUTCOMES.    HRA measures vendors’ performance solely on whether they placed a client into a job, giving no credit for any other outcomes.  It is well worth considering whether digital badges could provide a form of performance-based currency that could come to hold value in the eyes of HRA and other key agencies.  Digital badges could provide a powerful way of 1) making expectations clear to students about what they need to demonstrate knowing and being able to do in order to level up to increased opportunity in work, and 2) demonstrating that youth are gaining important competencies that will serve them well in future employment.

RECOMMENDATION D: PROVIDE HOLISTIC APPROACHES. If we are to achieve better outcomes for young people from under-resourced communities, we must provide a holistic set of supports for youth, in which youth have targeted support reaching the next level of educational attainment, building a track record of employment, gaining a set of professional contacts, and taking other steps toward responsible adulthood.  While our city benefits from an incredible array of support organizations, most lack the capacity to deliver a comprehensive set of services.  As such, we must be canny about creating continuum of services, facilitating partnerships between providers and across funding streams, AND helping students know where, how, and why to access them.  Digital Badges, described above, can provide “digital breadcrumbs”—demonstrating the next step available and advisable for students in order to advance towards their goals. 

RECOMMENDATION E: LENGTHEN AND STRENGTHEN PIPELINE PROGRAMS to ensure authentic experiences and integration with in school learning.  One of the big critiques of SYEP is that 1) SYEP largely fails to provide the high quality work experiences that can make a positive difference for youth new to the working world, 2) it has little or no connection to participants’ educational experiences or long-term career objectives,  3) there is a missed opportunity to support participants in making the link between their summer work experiences and year- round classroom learning. This must be fixed and it can be.

DYCD officials say that it is a challenge to engage private sector given the short six week duration of SYEP.  So why not lengthen the duration AND link it to a yearlong internship if students demonstrate success, thereby providing more incentive for employers AND for youth (after all, who can blame a teenager for not instantly acclimating to a radically different setting and/or for not investing deeply in something that lasts just six weeks?)  

RECOMMENDATION F: CREATE A BETTER SYSTEM FOR MAPPING AND MATCHING YOUTH AND PROGRAMS.  There is currently no comprehensive listing of all of the youth workforce development providers in the city that lists what services and programs they offer and how many slots they have available.  Designing a cool app or web-based service that could provide a digital, mappable database of youth workforce related providers and opportunities, that is simple and user-friendly and can be updated in live time, would go a long way.

It would also be valuable to map employment opportunities with smaller businesses.  The report notes that the pressure to make placement targets pushes workforce providers to focus on large employers, despite the fact that small businesses collectively provide more than half of the jobs in New York City.  Small, neighborhood businesses can be ripe with opportunities and be able to provide more hands on experience and mentoring.  Geographically-focused business improvement districts (BIDs), local development corporations (LDCs), and chambers of commerce can be helpful in identifying and engaging these smaller businesses.

BIG THORNY PROBLEM #2: INADEQUATE EDUCATIONAL PREPARATION.  NYC has come a long way in boosting high school graduation rates over the last decade, during which the citywide average has risen from 50% in 2002 to 65% in 2013.   Unfortunately, is is unclear what, if anything, this increase will mean much for students’ later labor market success, since a HS diploma no longer sends a strong signal of work readiness; many feel it has become “little more than a certificate of attendance.”  

RECOMMENDATION A: ALIGN EMPLOYER AND EDUCATOR EXPECTATIONS THROUGH JOINTLY DESIGNED DIGITAL BADGES.  The Common Core Learning Standards, which engender strong support from employers, represent an effort to more closely align what schools teach with what employers need.  Yet the Common Core cannot be sufficiently taught within a classroom, and students would benefit from the opportunity to experience how these standards are applied within the world of work through engaging in a continuum of progressive work-based experiences that align to Common Core but in a much more accessible, applied way.  Digital badges linked to standards would provide a means of contextualizing expectations and credentializing performance.

RECOMMENDATION B: CHANGE SELECTION PROCESS FOR SYEP AND WORK-RELATED OPPORTUNITIES.  DYCD enrolls applicants through a lottery system to ensure that every applicant has an equal chance to be selected.  While I am very supportive of providing equity of opportunity, this randomized process hurts providers’ capacity to make strong matches with employers since they don’t know which applicants they ultimately will have to place.  Furthermore, it provides no incentive for students to demonstrate excellence.  Digital badges could play a significant role, in that attaining a certain number of badges could enhance students’ eligibility for work opportunities, thereby enhancing students’ incentive to work hard and providing more quality control for employers.  This is more reflective of the realities in the world of work that we should be equipping students for.

RECOMMENDATION C: START YOUNGER.  The report raises doubts about the value of DYCD’s two WIA-funded programs serving Out of School Youth (OSY) and In School Youth (ISY) due to severe under-resourcing and structural challenges.  A big element of this, in my eyes, is targeting students too late in the process.  Were we to invest in those same students years earlier, we'd have a much greater chance of equipping them for success.

During the Bloomberg Administration, DOE doubled the number of designated Career and Technical Education high school programs, and there are now 400 CTE programs that provide career exploration and preparation for enrolled students.  This is a very distinctive contribution to the landscape.  Unfortunately 1) On balance, however, the public school system has placed little emphasis on preparing students for jobs and careers 2) CTE doesn’t kick in until HS—which is far too late to be optimal for students to gain exposure.  Adding to this, CEO, Learn to Work, and many other programs target youth ages 16-24—an understandable focus that should be sustained and strengthened while also seeding programs for younger students.

I’ve recently been influenced by a body of research on “career circumscription”—that is, the process by which youth narrow the territory of possible careers, progressively eliminating unacceptable alternatives in order to carve out a social space from the full menu that a culture offers.  This research indicates that by the early teen years (prior to age 14), youth largely take their broad social identities for granted, have firm conceptions of their place in the broad social order, and have narrowed their vocational/professional options accordingly.  As teens intensify their explorations of specific alternatives over the ensuing years, they do so only within the restricted range they have delimited for themselves.  As such, by the time students are in high school, too often as educators we are playing catchup with skills AND trying to unpacked an identity outlook that has become more fixed in ways that don’t favor an achievement outlook.

By only having Career and Technical Education at the high school level, and for only a fraction of students, we miss out on huge opportunities to leverage students’ career interests to provide context for classroom studies as well as to engage students with more active learning styles—that is, MOST students.  Teachers and leaders identify “students’ lack of motivation” as being one of the biggest challenges in schools today, and yet we fail to tap into the motherlode of motivation that career linkages can provide.

We can and we must invest in middle-school focused programs like “Possible Futures, Possible Selves”—part of Jobs for the Future’s (JFF) Pathways to Prosperity project—and Citizen Schools’ apprenticeship program.    These bear huge potential in lengthening and strengthening the pipeline.   DYCD’s new SONYC program, which has added the equivalent of 15 hours of after school programming in over 267 middle schools, provides a great canvas for infusing high-quality career awareness and exposure through approaches like these and through engaging industry partners.  We recommend that SONYC encourage programs to emphasize career awareness and exposure and provide an optional menu of programs and partners like JFF and CitizenSchools with demonstrated strength in these areas.   Further, the Middle School Technical Education Program (Middle STEP Act) Senator Tom Kaine introduced in the Senate in September would establish a pilot program for middle schools to partner with postsecondary institutions and local businesses to develop and implement career and technical education exploration programs that give students access to apprenticeships or project-based learning opportunities traditionally not available to students until high school or postsecondary programs, which could be hugely beneficial.  

RECOMMENDATION D: INFUSE MORE OF A YOUTH DEVELOPMENT APPROACH. Youth development experts rightly assert that a work-first model of resume-writing and job search activities is not appropriate for youth who have not even graduated high school, let alone have work experience to put on a resume.  Creating career exploration pathways that are developmentally appropriate and that tap into young people's core interests, as well as affective- and identity-related issues,  is vital.  It would be very powerful to work with industry partners to create scaffolded sequences of experiences along a 6-12 continuum, with increasing levels of responsibilities and incentives (i.e. visits, informational interviews, and job shadowships -->apprenticeships--> internships--> preliminary work experiences) that could complement in-school experiences.

Given the DeBlasio Administration’s impressive commitment to opportunity and equity, demonstrated through, among other things, sizable investments in expanding middle school after school through SONYC and to bringing social service providers into schools to support at-risk students and families in high need neighborhoods through the Community Schools initiative and more, New York City is at a very exciting inflection point. 

Now is the time to make a systemic commitment to creating an ecosystem approach to ensuring that middle and high school youth can “level up” in their learning through linking to meaningful work-based opportunities that offer progressively higher levels of challenge and skill building through meaningful partnerships and a (digital badge based) system that makes expectations and performance explicit.  CityPathways hopes to be a meaningful partner in ensuring these opportunities and outcomes, and we couldn’t be more excited to help NYC become a game board of opportunity.