In today’s increasingly fast-paced, dynamic, and technologically focused workforce, it is critical that young adults have a well-defined path from school to work and the training needed to succeed in the labor force. While the transition from school to work has always been challenging, today’s young adults are entering the workforce facing issues such as record student debt, a higher cost of living, increased workplace automation, and mental health challenges that were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is more critical than ever that we equip young people with the skills and supports they need to forge a path toward meaningful employment and economic self-sufficiency.
In March 2023, The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) launched the Youth Employment Works strategy, which not only offers such a road map for today’s youth, but also aligns with best practices and evidence-based solutions specifically tailored towards addressing the unique challenges of youth with disabilities. The strategy centers on three goals to accelerate systems change and reduce silos across service providers:
- Ensuring the workforce system offers seamless access to job opportunities and supportive services for young people entering the labor force from all pathways.
- Encouraging partners across all public and private sectors to invest in workforce training and job services for all young people.
- Guaranteeing all young people – especially “opportunity youth” – have access to paid work experiences aligned with high-quality career pathways that are safe and age appropriate.
The focus on opportunity youth—commonly defined as those ages 14 to 24 who are neither in school nor employed—provides a unique opportunity to address the needs of youth with disabilities. In 2020, about one in every five youth with a disability was neither in school nor in the labor force, compared with about one in every 20 of their peers without a disability.
Youth with disabilities face unique challenges in the transition from school to work. They often have multiple service needs beyond employment services, such as support needs in the areas of health care, education, and independent living. Due to fragmentation and inadequate coordination of these services, youth with disabilities and their family members often have to navigate a complex web of services and supports, working with multiple providers across various systems of care. For students with disabilities, schools can provide a critical connection point to supports and services—but as they age out of school, many have difficulty accessing the help they need to succeed at work, a reality commonly known as “the services cliff.” In addition, youth with disabilities may experience additional marginalization that can complicate their employment prospects: a substantial share of youth experiencing homelessness and youth involved with the foster care and criminal justice systems have disabilities.
As a result of these challenges, youth with disabilities face the prospect of poor economic outcomes and reduced well-being over their lifetimes. Young people with disabilities are less likely to graduate high school, enroll in college, or be employed than peers without disabilities. They are also less likely to be employed at older ages, and earn lower wages on average. Many young people with disabilities grow up to live in poverty as adults and participate in adult disability benefit programs, which not only has negative implications for their own well-being but also means more spending on government programs.
Therefore, it is promising that the core pillars of DOL’s Youth Employment Works strategy are consistent with best practices for helping youth with disabilities find and sustain employment. The transition from school to work for people with disabilities is a topic that we have not only studied for decades, but one for which we’ve played an active role in building evidence to shape policy.
The “No Wrong Door” approach outlined in DOL’s strategy can help provide streamlined services for youth with disabilities as they try to find their place in the workforce.
Many federal and state programs and policies seek to help youth with disabilities enter the workforce, but families often struggle to access and use available services. They face barriers such as low awareness of existing programs, complex or inconsistent eligibility criteria, delayed or limited access to services, and burdensome application processes that can make it hard for youth with disabilities to access the help they need. In addition, logistical challenges like obtaining accessible transportation to and from service centers, and family factors such as parents’ expectations and support for their employment, can influence their ability to use existing services effectively. Given these challenges, a “no wrong door” approach might help reduce barriers to using existing services by offering streamlined access and reducing the burden of multiple applications and coordination across various DOL programs.
Focusing on increasing paid work experiences could have powerful implications for the employment trajectories and long-term self-sufficiency of young people.
Our research on employment interventions for people with low incomes has found that being offered services focused on work experiences and on-the-job learning opportunities was most likely to improve labor market outcomes. This is especially the case when they are combined with other services that help people prepare for, find, apply to, and obtain jobs. For youth with disabilities specifically, having a paid job, volunteer activity, or an internship with substantial time commitment and responsibilities increases the likelihood of being employed as young adults. For example, we recently completed the national evaluation of the Promoting Readiness of Minors in Supplemental Security Income (PROMISE) demonstration, an ambitious joint initiative by DOL, the Social Security Administration, and other federal partners to support youth with disabilities with low incomes and their families. We found that, on average, the PROMISE projects increased youth employment five years later by 7 percent, and that this was due in large part to the PROMISE projects’ early impacts on work experience.
Employers must understand the business case for making an investment in youth with disabilities and other opportunity youth.
The Youth Employment Works strategy asks employers and other private entities to join forces with public systems to reduce silos and make the necessary investments in youth’s career development. Programs like Bridges from School to Work have long recognized the importance of active employers to assuring successful work outcomes for young adults with disabilities. Employers need to be equipped with practical information and assistance with recruiting, hiring, and training youth with disabilities and setting them up for long and successful careers. The Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN), an initiative of DOL’s Office of Disability and Employment Policy (ODEP), can play a key role in helping employers understand the career development and accommodation needs of youth with disabilities, which can differ from those of older adults with disabilities.
Additional recommendations to build on the Youth Employment Works strategy
As we define and refine specific policies and programs to implement the Youth Employment Works strategy, it is important that young people have a seat at the table. By hearing directly from diverse youth about their service needs, perspectives on promising career pathways, and satisfaction with and barriers to using current programs and workforce opportunities, we may uncover challenges and opportunities for connections to and sustained engagement with helpful services. For example, we recently conducted focus groups with opportunity youth with disabilities who come from minority backgrounds, who spoke about the importance of welcoming program environments that are free of judgment and discrimination and of outreach materials that specify the programs’ expectations of participants.
In December 2018, ODEP supported a dialogue with young leaders, employers, policymakers, educators, and administrators to identify priorities and strategies for the full inclusion of opportunity youth with disabilities in the workforce. One of the four key priorities to emerge from this dialogue was to mobilize youth leaders and bring them into the design, development, and decision making process of new policies or initiatives. The launch of the Youth Employment Works strategy provides an opportunity to have opportunity youth and their families participate in the early stages of developing and refining details and implementation. Combining the Youth Employment Works’ evidence-based tenets with earnest efforts to engage and collaborate with opportunity youth in policy discussions can increase the likelihood that we can generate relevant, effective, and empowering solutions for opportunity youth.