The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act places a greater emphasis on helping citizens build long-term careers while aligning development programs with the talent needs of high-growth local industries and re-engaging disconnected youth.

The U.S. workforce development system just got a much-needed energy boost.

In August, the Department of Labor made the final updates to the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which represents the most transformative legislative reform to our public workforce system in more than 15 years. WIOA aims to improve our nation’s public workforce system and economic competitiveness, while reducing unemployment and giving citizens the tools they need to earn a family-sustaining wage.

To achieve this, we’ve evolved the way we measure success. Rather than simply measuring job placements, WIOA places a greater emphasis on helping citizens build long-term careers, while aligning development programs with the talent needs of high-growth local industries and re-engaging disconnected youth.

In fact, 75 percent of all WIOA funding will be devoted to serving disconnected youth—defined as young people between the ages of 16-24 who aren’t working or enrolled in school. This demographic is an enormous priority for WIOA because it’s a critical age for building a foundation of skills and knowledge for future career success. Without this foundation, the dream of earning a family-sustaining wage can drift even further away.

Many disconnected youths lack previous work experience and haven’t graduated high school. A recent study issued by the National Center for Education Statistics suggests that 41 percent of high school dropouts between ages 20-24 are unemployed. Some don’t have a resume and have never written a cover letter. Without the right guidance, information, resources, and support, many of our nation’s young people will face enormous obstacles to thriving in today’s global economy. 

To help workforce board leaders and case workers realize the vision of WIOA within their own communities, here are three strategies for engaging disconnected young people and helping them build a foundation for a better life.

Show Them What’s Available: Spread the Word on Career Resources

Workforce development boards have a wealth of critical information and tools that can help disconnected youth navigate the early stages of their careers - including guiding them through the process of attaining a GED, building their resume, taking skills assessments and accessing training opportunities. The biggest challenge is often letting them know that these resources exist!

Case managers need to engage youth where they spend their time. In today’s world, that begins and ends with social media. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, 90 percent of individuals between ages 18-29 use social media regularly. Workforce development boards can leverage engagement channels like Twitter and Facebook to start a conversation about the career planning opportunities that exist.

Once that conversation has been started, many states are directing young people to online job-matching platforms, called labor exchanges, where available tools and information can be accessed from one centralized location from any mobile device. We’ve seen states such as Ohio and Washington leverage them effectively as online “one stop shops” for career planning resources. 

Despite that fact that we’re living in a digital world, there’s no substitute for getting out into the community and engaging with young people face-to-face about the challenges that they face. By hosting workshops and community meetings, case managers can connect with people on a more personal level, and start to build relationships while sharing information on the training, financial aid, internship and apprenticeship opportunities in their region.


Show Them What’s Possible: Building Career Paths

After we get the word out, it’s time to get excited about what’s possible!

Many of these young people are the first members of their families to get GEDs or become certified in a trade skill. They haven’t necessarily seen how careers progress, and how the skills they attain now can pay enormous dividends in the future. That’s why it’s essential to show the potential career options that are at their fingertips, while putting together a tangible career plan that makes it all real. 

WIOA emphasizes the transformation of the way we all use workforce data—from collecting it, to analyzing it to sharing it. A major component of this data revolution is real-time labor intelligence, which helps workforce development boards track rapidly growing industries and skills needs within their communities. This data empowers case managers to show young people tangible career opportunities that are right outside their front door, and helps them build customized paths for getting there. 

Although charting a career typically starts with a vision, dreams can sometimes be intimidating, especially for youths who are essentially starting from scratch. Recognizing this challenge, WIOA focuses on developing career pathways, which outline “step-by-step” approaches to reaching a professional destination. Career paths include everything from quick wins like completing a skills assessment to long-term investments like a college degree.

One tactic that we’ve seen work extremely is the personality assessment. These assessments can build initial excitement by showing youths not only what careers are available, and what they might be qualified to do, but also what they might enjoy. When the right labor market information is matched with individual interests and strengths, you have a great foundation for achieving two critical WIOA goals: long-term careers and job satisfaction.

Show Them That You Care: Celebrate Every Milestone

Like many things in life, getting excited and building the plan are often the easy parts. The hard part is sticking to it.

Maintaining youth engagement over the long haul can be tricky. This is why the job of the case manager has to be one part coach and one part cheerleader. As discussed, many times these young people are the first in their family to embark on this career journey. They may not have a support system that understands the process, which is why it’s essential for case managers to celebrate every milestone within a young person’s career path and help them find the motivation to keep striving.  

Victories can be as small as completing resumes or training courses, and celebrations can be as simple as congratulatory text messages. The key is continuing to deliver ongoing positive reinforcement and while helping them stay focused on their big picture goals.

WIOA’s prioritization of long-term outcomes over quick win job placements reinforces this approach, and paves the way for celebrating even more life-changing outcomes like salary increases. The case managers that I know got into this profession to help people, and the vision of WIOA is more aligned to this passion than ever before. 

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