How to successfully introduce workplace skills into your youth program

By Fan Kong - May 2011


Cochran, G. R., & Ferrari, T. M. (2009). Preparing youth for the 21st century knowledge economy: Youth programs and workforce preparation. Afterschool Matters8, 11–25.

Successfully combining youth development with workforce preparation means creating opportunities for work-based learning, where youth are learning workplace skills through work rather than learning about a specific career path. This paper summarizes the ways in which workforce skills such as communication, critical thinking, leadership, and teamwork can be cultivated through three types of program models: “value-added,” “growing your own,” and employer partnerships.

Understanding adolescent employment is critical to determine if and how to incorporate work-based learning with youth development. Factors such as stress, workplace environment, reasonable pay, family background, and income level all play a role in determining the quality of the experience.

A “value-added” approach is easily adaptable to existing programs. Youth programs can be enhanced by introducing opportunities for skill building and career awareness and by providing authentic experiences (not just busy work) with high expectations. For example, because adolescents crave increasing responsibilities, allowing youth to teach their peers and younger members can satisfy their developmental needs while developing the skills that employers value. Furthermore, program directors can add performance evaluations, skill sections, and reflection activities, all of which encourage responsibility and make the experience more like a real job.

“Growing your own” describes a model whereby youth participants graduate from their programs to become full staff members. This approach must be an intentional progression—structured like an apprenticeship—for youth to start as participants, become peer leaders or teen employees, and then get hired as adult staff members. These young employees learn from experience and observation, while receiving guidance from a supervisor. Staff members should be prepared for working with adolescents, so there is a need for orientation and training for adult staff as well. Expectations should be clear through the institution of a formal evaluation system that incorporates reflections and planning for growth.

When programs formally partner with employers in the community, staff must ensure that learning is not left to chance. In one example—a six-month program culminating in an eight-week summer work experience—teens are required to participate in a session on application and interviewing skills before actually interviewing with local organizations. Participants then may be selected as teen assistants (volunteers who receive gift cards as incentives) or as teen apprentices (employees paid minimum wage). In this approach, both participants and employers require monitoring and support from program staff through site visits, reflection, and honest evaluation. Youth learn job-specific skills and career awareness in a real-world setting with high and reasonable expectations.