Lessons From Generation Work on Incorporating Positive Youth Development Into Employment Training

Generation Work, an initiative launched by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in 2016, aims to connect more of America’s young adults with meaningful employment by changing the way public and private systems prepare them for jobs. Five Generation Work partner sites—Cleveland, Hartford, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, and Seattle—align education, employment, and support services to help young people develop skills to succeed in professional settings; link them with employers; and increase their advancement and earning opportunities. By focusing on its keystone principles—demand-driven work, positive youth development, and racial equity and inclusion—Generation Work has helped each local partnership create specific strategies that work for their context, programs, and key stakeholders. Because positive youth development is a set of practices, not a rigid program, it can be used among various populations and in different types of programs. The initiative focuses on young people of color from low-income families who have been disconnected from the labor market and face the greatest barriers to employment.

Child Trends has supported Generation Work’s positive youth development implementation. (Read more about positive youth development, including the associated PILOT tool, on our Generation Work project page.) As Phase 2 of Generation Work enters its second year, this blog post presents lessons from Phase 1 of the initiative on helping public and private systems incorporate positive youth development approaches to prepare young people for jobs.

There is no “one size fits all” approach to positive youth development, which can be implemented successfully in a variety of ways depending on program structure. Each Generation Work site grasped the need to intentionally integrate positive youth development approaches into their work, which meant thinking about how to meet young people’s various needs, but their specific approaches varied. For example, Hartford encouraged the Young Legends, a youth-led group, to actively guide efforts to improve employment outcomes for young people in the city. Seattle collected detailed ethnographic data from program participants at different time points to better capture their stories and narratives. The Indianapolis program identified equity and inclusion as a distinct element, aligned with positive youth development but essential to serving young adults equitably, and worked to integrate them. Rather than offering all participants the same menu of services, Indianapolis pursued equity by identifying what each participant needed and linking them with resources to help them reach their goals.

Programs must integrate racial equity and inclusion strategies within positive youth development programs and staff must recognize the reality of structural racism. A young adult-focused, supportive, and positive job training program will not equitably serve young people unless efforts specifically focus on reaching, engaging, and retaining young people of color and ensuring that outcomes are equal, even if different young people need different services. Staff must be willing to address their personal biases and provide settings and services that are safe and respectful for young people of color. In addition, programs must commit to collecting program data by race and ethnicity, which is necessary to assess participant needs and monitor program effectiveness. The Philadelphia partnership developed staff capacity by forming a learning community. Mid-level managers from partner organizations that had sometimes been competitors—and who sometimes did not know their counterparts at other organizations—met with a facilitator to build relationships and identify common challenges, such as restorative practices and racial equity. These discussions motivated some participants to create similar opportunities for more junior staff.

Close communication across supportive organizations helps ensure that young people can be referred to another organization and receive the services they need. With close communication across organizations, programs found that they could link young people to the services or resources best aligned with their needs or goals (i.e., give them multiple “on-ramps” to services). For example, in Seattle, Generation Work supported regular meetings across agencies that fostered positive relationships and trust. Staff appreciated each organization’s role in the complex ecosystem and the value of having varied on-ramps appropriate to the goals of individual workers. This close cooperation led to referrals and collaboration across agencies and systems. The Cleveland partnership used the PILOT tool in monthly staff meetings to stimulate conversation across different organizations, identify strengths and growth opportunities, and develop common practices for work with participants.

To introduce positive youth development in employment settings, it’s important to make the case to employers for why supporting young adults is important. The lack of continuity from training and educational programs to employment situations can undermine progress among young employees who have participated in more supportive settings. The positive responses from young people and staff to integrating youth development and equity strategies into Generation Work’s local partnerships suggests that bringing these constructive approaches to employers and formal systems would be a desirable, albeit challenging, next step.

These four lessons from Generation Work’s Phase 1 can inform Phase 2’s efforts to expand these approaches throughout the field. Integrating positive youth development and racial equity and inclusion approaches into employment settings to serve young adults of color will require careful partnership, communication, and thoughtfulness about why these approaches help businesses as well as young people.

Learn more about how Cleveland, Hartford, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, and Seattle Generation Work sites implemented positive youth development approaches throughout Phase 1 of the project.

Suggested citation

Moore, K.A., Lantos, H., & Redd, Z. (2023). Lessons from Generation Work on incorporating positive youth development into employment training. Child Trends. https://www.childtrends.org/blog/lessons-from-generation-work-on-incorporating-positive-youth-development-into-employment-training