The United Nations is leveraging International Youth Day to raise awareness of intergenerational solidarity, address age-based discrimination and create a world for all ages. Though the observance is held annually on August 12, 2022, events have also been scheduled in the preceding weeks to build momentum for youth inclusion, share knowledge between organizations and replicate success models. Ida Ford is a Workforce Development Administrator for Ohio Means Jobs - Cleveland Cuyahoga County - and participated in this observance through a presentation to her colleagues in the Workforce Innovators network on July 12, 2022. Workforce Innovators are emerging leaders from fourteen workforce development boards in the Midwest Urban Strategies (MUS) consortium. Therefore, the presentation Ida delivered increased collaboration between consortium members and ensured leaders will relate more closely to unemployed youth across the Midwest.
Ida’s presentation was focused upon a program which involved a wide range of speakers and community leaders and strong representation from historically marginalized youth, ages 18-24. In addition, the outreach Ida’s team conducted represented a departure from the visibility activities embraced by other public institutions, which are usually best-suited to adults.
Indeed Ida said, “We can not do the same things and expect different results. For example, it is not enough to establish a career pipeline and promote it through flyers, posters and a television broadcast that youth are unlikely to see. Rather, we have to rethink the way we design our programs – make deliberate connections, demonstrate concern for youth priorities and be willing to go where youth are to conduct outreach. That means we must be visible on the social media and gaming platforms where youth are active and at the same time, become embedded in historically marginalized communities as their resource.”
The program is especially relevant to Workforce Innovators because they are committed to incubate and accelerate initiatives that make diversity actionable. In fact, they will rely upon lessons learned from programs like these, to increase the persistence of youth and minorities in other workforce activities and career pipelines. This progress will promote increased youth labor participation. Thus, the presentation Ida delivered could not come at a more critical time.
For instance, according to the United Nations, 16% of the global population is represented by 1.2 billion youth, ages 15-24 years old. However, roughly 20% of young people are unemployed, out-of-school or unenrolled in a training or skills development program. This reality is especially concerning for young women, who are disproportionately represented in the informal labor market where there is less job security and perform work that is often unpaid or underpaid. Further, the typical career path for young minority women embodies an underinvestment in engineering, information technology, manufacturing and other male-dominated fields. Arguably, this path enshrines traditional roles, racial disparities and gender stereotypes. These stereotypes are particularly significant, because they are embedded in communities, schools and families, where they narrow opportunities for minority youth to explore sectors unbeknownst to them and pursue careers of choice.
In fact, Ida claimed, “Youth in our program talked often about ‘code switching’ - an adaptation practiced by many minority groups that includes changing one’s name, clothing and even speech to deemphasize race or ethnicity. Women from minority communities in particular, feel compelled to change their hairstyle, accessories and other aspects of their appearance that connote cultural expression or identity, because it is considered unsuitable in the most prestigious schools and traditional professional settings. Sadly, minorities who chose not to code switch have considerably less opportunities. Moreover, many youth participants in our program claimed they tried to find jobs on their own, however lacked the networks, mentors and knowledge to overcome these barriers. Therefore, the jobs they want most are unreachable and instead, they take the jobs they can get.”
Ida also explained youth from economically-disadvantaged backgrounds avoid job fairs and other workforce activities, because they do not have professional attire and are unaware of the expectations associated with mainstream workplace culture. Additionally, there is resistance from other youth who are dissuaded by an older generation that judges them based upon appearance. As a result, they also avoid workplace activities and formal workplace environments altogether. In both instances however, there are significant implications for lifelong earning potential, living standards and workplace diversity, among other issues. Intermittent lockdowns and decreased commercial activities stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic, have added to these complexities, mitigating the accessibility to livelihoods that can both keep pace with soaring costs of living and the nascent youth demand for workplace change.
Increased remote work opportunities and virtual services have maintained workforce activities to a degree however, the new connections that workplace change requires, can not be established and sustained through web-based platforms alone. In addition, Workforce Innovators have argued for more employer education. Indeed, they are challenging the narrative of minority youth as unskilled and defying attempts to disqualify them based upon cultural expression or casual attire. The program was therefore lauded, because it galvanized youth, employers, workforce and community leaders via approachable, in-person and multi-generational events. Social justice, recreation and career exploration were integrated into these events and leaders were committed to elevating the voices of youth inasmuch as they were keen to promote their own ideas. Through solidarity, these connections have set aside ages-old practices that sort labor into pre-determined sectors. Remarkably, they have made post-pandemic recovery more accessible for all ages and in particular, instilled hope in young minority women whose ambition will lead them toward new career choices.
Dr. Kara Whitman has served as the focal point to Workforce Innovators since January 2022 and authored this article for Midwest Urban Strategies (MUS). In her capacity as a change agent in the emergency education and livelihoods sectors, she has been keen to connect our programs and milestones to sustainable development goals (SDGs) and feature positive narratives of women and minorities in leadership. Moreover, Dr. Whitman is active in the field of humanitarian assistance and international cooperation, through which she recognizes United Nations observances as opportunities to promote racial equity, diversity and inclusion in the United States and around the world.