Young Adult Perspectives on Workforce Development

Young Adult Perspectives on Workforce Development

Many of us working to identify good strategies and support effective programs understand the great importance of involving communities in informing and implementing our work. But we do not always know how to best approach effective community or youth engagement.

On February 28th, the Maryland Philanthropy Network Workforce Affinity Group hosted a program entitled Youth Perspectives on Reshaping Workforce Development in Baltimore. The program was the first stop on a Baltimore listening tour where stakeholders are hearing what some young adults have to say about education and employment opportunities. For Maryland Philanthropy Network members, this was also a chance to learn about an approach to conducting community-based research.

The uprisings that followed the death of Freddie Gray were a potent reminder that many young adults in Baltimore face barriers that have excluded them from opportunity in the local labor market. In Baltimore City, roughly one in five young people ages 16-24 are neither in school nor are working.  In response to the unrest, many Maryland Philanthropy Network members began to amp up efforts to understand systemic obstacles and develop programmatic approaches to address the striking opportunity gaps for young adults. Experience tells us that to do this well, we need robust and sustained ways of involving young people in identifying operational problems that may be most visible to them and in shaping solutions that are responsive to their real needs. Prioritizing this as a best practice, staff within the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Baltimore team put a youth engagement plan into action in 2016.

This plan involved the identification of a team of seven community leaders – all young-adult, African American residents with strong track-records of service, organizing and advocacy on behalf of historically underinvested neighborhoods and youth populations - who would develop and implement a participatory research strategy. These men and women were already heavily involved and engaged in local community revitalization efforts, often using unpaid time to shape initiatives, amplify community voice and organize community groups to demand policy and program changes. The Casey Foundation recognized that these leaders, who are of the communities for which they advocate, offer something that must be valued by philanthropy: the voice and expertise of the people most impacted by our investments and the issues that we all care about. And so, they worked with them to develop their skills as consultants and offered an opportunity to monetize their work with the Foundation as paid researchers.

With support from Frontline Solutions, a black-owned consulting firm serving the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors, Casey staff and a range of community and industry partners, the group of 7 conducted exploratory research to understand the economic landscape impacting youth in Baltimore and to learn best practices for engaging community voices. They then went on to create customized engagement strategies to reach out to youth ages 16-24 in a variety of neighborhoods across the city. Through “corner conversations” and focus groups, they talked to over 80 Baltimore youth about their aspirations, concerns and overall impressions of workforce development practices in Baltimore. The consulting group reported that they could leverage their own shared racial and economic experiences to facilitate honest and meaningful communication with city youth. Based on what the team learned from youth, they developed a set of recommendations that can be implemented by organizations, businesses and systems to more effectively work with youth.

The findings from the consulting group’s research, and more about the process they led, can be found in a report published by the Casey Foundation last month: Reshaping Workforce Development in Baltimore.

As pertains to the recommendations for improvements to Baltimore’s workforce system, other city agency systems, and youth serving organizations, members of the Baltimore Workforce Funders Collaborative will continue to discuss next steps at our upcoming meetings.  If you missed the listening session at Maryland Philanthropy Network and would like to hear the presentation by the consultant group, there will be other dates on the listening tour. Please contact Sara Muempfer ( at the Annie E. Casey Foundation for information.