It is no secret that America’s workforce is aging. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2013 figures, approximately one-half of those currently employed are over 40 years of age; approximately one-fifth are over 55. We have an urgent need to bring young people into the workforce to begin acquiring the experience and the specific skills that will provide continuity in all industries, from auto repair to nuclear physics. Doing so will keep our country competitive. But, where are those future workers now?
A staggering 21 to 26.5 percent of eligible workers between the ages of 16 and 19 are unemployed. The rate falls to slightly over 12 percent for those between 20 and 24. This is our next generation of workers, and they are not getting the opportunities they need in order to become full-fledged members of the workforce. There are many reasons for this—social, political, economic—and no simple solutions.
Since the issues are so complex and interrelated, it makes sense to look at interrelated solutions. The first step is to recast the set of problems as a single goal—in this case workforce entry—and then approach it from multiple angles simultaneously. For instance, if we consider education, hiring practices, and existing human resources as integral components in the process of preparing future workers, perhaps we can begin to make headway against a seemingly intractable problem.
Although no one disputes the fact that a good education, and specifically a good elementary and secondary education, is the foundation of ultimate success in the workforce, there is little agreement about how it should be provided. Ongoing debates about the validity and implementation of the Common Core Standards, teaching to the test, charter schools, vouchers, etc. make only too clear the degree of disagreement about how (and where, and what) K-12 education should be provided. The debates obscure one obvious conclusion: without high-quality, free, and universally available public education, we cannot manage the enormous task of educating our children. Our priority should be to erase the disparities between public schools, whether rural, suburban, or urban, so that all children have an equal opportunity of receiving a decent basic education. Our public school system should be, as it was originally envisioned, our strength, not our weakness.
Employers, for their part, can facilitate entry into the workforce in a number of ways. One is to evaluate the qualifications for existing entry-level positions: are the degree, training, and/or experience requirements in line with the work actually required for the position? Another is to assess whether there might be a need for entry-level positions that have not yet been created. If your senior economists are doing data entry, perhaps there is an opportunity to bring in an intern or entry-level employee to take on this kind of work, thus providing work experience to a young person and freeing up more senior staff to do the higher-level work for which they are uniquely qualified. Employers of all sizes and most industries might think about internships and other shorter-term, possibly part-time positions: positions that both address a business need, and give a younger employee an opportunity to gain experience at a particular firm or in an industry.
Existing human resources (that is, current employees) are a key component of facilitating workplace entry for new workers, and not just in traditional mentoring roles. As is true with every new generation of workers, this one will bring skills and perspectives different from those of previous generations. Employers often fail to see that these skills and perspectives are to some extent representative of the present and future, and sometimes struggle to subdue rather than take advantage of them. Therefore the most effective “mentoring” relationships will be those that are designed to go both ways: teaching the new worker the practices, conventions, and expectations of the workplace, and “training” the more experienced worker in new ways of viewing the world.
Much of this may seem like “pie in the sky” dreaming. However, many companies are doing some or all of these things, while many other people are hard at work trying to “fix” our education system. If we think of getting the next generation into the workforce as a goal rather than a set of discrete problems, and see it as our shared responsibility, we can create the needed opportunities.