Keeping Youth Connected: The Power of Paid-Work Opportunities and the Potential to Save a Generation

By Margrit Allen

I am a lifelong Detroiter. During my earlier career, I had the opportunity to work in schools and with nonprofits focused on reengaging disconnected youth and supporting the reentry of those coming home from incarceration. My time spent doing this work led me to question the rationale of focusing public funding on the “after” supports in lieu of prevention. What if we focused as much of our energy and dollars on actually preventing youth disconnection and criminal justice involvement as we do on re-engagement and reentry?

I was thrilled to see President Biden’s commitment to young people. These are the concrete steps we need to take as a nation to begin to invest in preventing youth disconnection. We need to see action on par with the historic investments in infrastructure. Federal investments in workforce development, a focus on apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs, and subsidized employment in the Build Back Better Act are exactly what our community needs.

During these last two years, COVID-19 hurt key industries like retail and hospitality that often employ young people. With this impact, coupled with the extreme challenges associated with virtual schooling, youth disconnection from work and school more than doubled here in Detroit during the pandemic. This has kept me up at night!

Our city’s youth are one of Detroit’s greatest assets. The harms of youth disconnection have a snowball effect. Youth disconnection has long-term negative impacts for adult employment and economic success. It can impact the health of families and employment growth. And youth disconnection can hurt the sustainability of our entire Detroit community.

Our work at Urban Alliance is key to preventing the negative ripple effects that can come with youth disconnection before they happen. We are pioneers of youth high-school internships. Our focus is on youth who have a desire to learn, grow, and work, unlike many programs (in our community) that cherry pick students from magnet schools. We connect youth to “paid” internships with employers in the community, real work opportunities paired with support services, mentoring, and post-high school planning.

We do this work because we believe that regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or socio-economic background, everyone deserves equal access to the training, workforce development, technology, and networks to chart pathways to economic success. We do this work because we know that systemic racism impacts youth of color who do not have that equal access. Connecting youth to real work opportunities while in high school given them an early start to build and leverage social capital, learn more about the work world in context, and gain exposure to career opportunities — all while earning a paycheck.

We started this work in Washington D.C. in 1996. Seeing a local need here, we expanded the work to Detroit in 2018. So far, we’ve been able to serve over 250 students here.

What keeps us going is knowing that our work is having a positive impact. Of those that we have served, every one of the young people has graduated high school on time. Last year, an unprecedented 90 percent of our students went on to enroll in 2- or 4-year colleges and we continue to work with them to ensure they remain on a pathway to economic success. We have found that many of our youth are directly contributing to their families’ economic success through the paychecks they earn through their internships. This tells us that our internships are not just experiential; they are practically reducing hardship in families.

I envision a day when paid, work-based learning opportunities are not a privilege for the few youths, offered by organizations like Urban Alliance. We could do so much more with greater federal support to scale the impact of programs like ours with federal funding for paid work for all youth before they can become disconnected from work and school.

It’s beyond time to invest in paid employment opportunities at scale because we know this works for our young people. This is a pivotal moment for a positive impact on the future economic and community well-being in Detroit. We’re ready. And we’re waiting for our members of Congress to act.

Margrit Allen is the Executive Director of Urban Alliance in Detroit. Margrit also served as an Aspen Institute Economic Opportunity Fellow.

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A national nonpartisan organization dedicated to public policies that strengthen families and create pathways to education and work

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