The Key to Helping Youth Find Jobs in a “401(k) World”? Offer Support, Not Blame

The Key to Helping Youth Find Jobs in a “401(k) World”? Offer Support, Not Blame

Most Americans will agree that the youth unemployment rate—currently over 16% for 16-to-24-year-olds, not including underemployment—is unacceptably high. Yet, it’s much harder to find consensus on the reasons why more young people aren’t finding meaningful, sustainable work.

Hope Street Group just released a paper I wrote in collaboration with Alcoa Foundation, Missing Makers: How to Rebuild America’s Manufacturing Workforce, which addresses this issue from a manufacturing perspective. In the paper, we try to frame the challenge of finding and training youth as broadly as possible, pulling in employer, educator, and other viewpoints to provide a complete picture of the jobs landscape. However, the most crucial component by far of Missing Makers, in my view, is the stories I heard from the young people I interviewed—high school and community college students, several from low-income or “at-risk” households, all struggling to find their way in the world and get a good job.

Many of these young people tend to get a bad rap. Media and the older generation frequently label them ‘millennials’—lazy, directionless, and unwilling to take the steps necessary to find jobs. I think this view is tremendously callous, and unreflective of the broader social context: The technological innovations that recently brought us high-speed Internet and smartphones have also drastically transformed the U.S. economic environment, with increased speed, automation, and competition from workers in other countries. Today, the world is simultaneously much more challenging for young people to navigate, and much less forgiving of mistakes.

Thomas Friedman, who authored The World is Flat, recently coined a new term: a “401(k) world.” This world, he writes, is “a world of defined contributions, not defined benefits.” He adds, “If you are self-motivated, wow, this world is tailored for you. The boundaries are all gone. But if you’re not self-motivated, this world will be a challenge because the walls, ceilings, and floors that protected people are also disappearing.”

The “401(k) world” is an apt (and catchy) description of today’s job market. Still, I don’t think that a lack of self-motivation is the main reason why some youth fail to find sustainable careers. As I interviewed low-income high school and college students about their job goals, I heard a wide range of ambitions and dreams:

“I was thinking about becoming a scientist. I love learning about the universe.”
“I’m planning on becoming an architect, and maybe owning my own art gallery. I’ve been an artist since I was four years old, and art is my passion.”
“I want to be a computer engineer.”
“I want to be an oceanographer. I’m very interested in the living organisms in the ocean.”
“I want to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.”
“I want to be a registered nurse (RN) for older people. I like caring for them and helping them.”
These hardly seem like the responses of people who were honestly unmotivated to find work. Yet, as ambitious as they were, very few of the youth I interviewed seem to have a clear idea of the right steps to achieving their career goals, beyond simply “getting into college.”

For example, one high school student who had wanted to be an animator since he was small told me he would “go to a training program or something” to achieve his goal. Another highly motivated, ex-Marine business student at a community college wanted to get into upper management at a large corporation. To reach this goal, he said he planned on getting a “PhD in business, and then maybe a minor in arts.” Almost no one mentioned apprenticeships or getting relevant work experience during college; one of the few exceptions was the future RN, whose mom was also a nurse.

In many cases, this lack of a clear path forward ends up hurting young people’s career prospects, often permanently. Too many students find out too late that they didn’t study the right subject, or didn’t get the right experience. McKinsey and Chegg recently pointed out that simply planning on going to college isn’t enough to guarantee success; nearly half of college students surveyed said they’re currently in a job that doesn’t require a college degree, and 53% wish that they had “done something differently” with their education. As one former student trying to find work told me, “[I wish I knew earlier that] everything you do as a child and a teenager and a young adult reflects on what’s going to happen to you in your adult career.”

As more youth shared their stories with me, the missing pieces became clearer: The challenge for many of them wasn’t finding motivation; it was getting the knowledge and support they needed earlier on in their educational journey, to help them find the right career path. To extend Tom Friedman’s metaphor: Yes, one does need motivation to contribute to one’s future, but what about the people who were never taught about good investing habits, or never given sound investment advice from experts? What about those who were never even taught what “investment” means? How do they find the right tools to contribute to their “401(k)” without guidance along the way, no matter how badly they want to succeed?

I was lucky enough to find my first job in my chosen field right after my college graduation. I can take some credit for that, as I worked hard in high school and college. However, I also took my parents’ support, both academic and emotional, as a given. They were the people who taught me about focus, paying attention, and keeping good study habits—habits that are crucial in the workplace, as well as in higher education. As I grew older, they gave me career advice based on their own professional experience. I also had family members—doctors, businesspeople, entrepreneurs, academics—to look up to as role models, and I had many teachers and professors who supported me along the way.

In contrast, here are some of the stories I heard, which were fairly typical for the “at-risk” population I interviewed:

“[My mom] got evicted a year ago and she hasn’t been able to afford a new place, so she lives at some type of housing place. I’ve been staying with my friend. Same thing with my sisters. I don’t have a dad; he passed away before I was born, and my mom’s been in and out of prison.”
“My dad is in Mexico. My mom stresses a lot to get us through everything.”
“My parents really don’t want to help me because they don’t think I’ll graduate and go to college. They don’t think I’m serious about it. They think I’ll probably end up like my sisters and brothers, dropping out and not doing anything with their lives.”
“I feel like there’s no one there to be proud of me.”
High school and college are already confusing and emotionally challenging times for everyone. Without a solid base of family support or clear role models, is it reasonable to expect youth to simply “figure things out” on their own?

Yes, the youth of today live in a 401(k) world. However, the onus still falls on us as a society to provide basic career guidance to youth throughout their education, and to provide them with the right tools they need to find their way to a successful career afterward.

This problem may seem daunting at first, but in many cases, simply having a mentor can make a huge difference in someone’s life. One student (the one I described earlier whose brothers and sisters had dropped out) is on track to graduate high school, largely due to a school counselor who mentors her.

She told me: “I actually meet with her pretty much every day. She helps me with my classes because I learned college is a lot different than I thought. When you go to college, you sit there and listen. You don’t do [other] work. You’ve got to sit there and pay attention a lot to actually get the work done when it comes down to the assignment. She could relate [to me].”

In Missing Makers, we recommend that employers collaborate with educators in their regions to provide outreach and mentoring programs to youth. However, one does not need to be a large employer or a major educational institution to create change. I encourage everyone to be a mentor for someone—a child, a relative, a Little Brother or Little Sister, or really anyone. Small individual actions can lead to big cultural changes, which can lead to a fuller 401(k) for everyone.

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