At a Glance

This toolkit is designed to help community partners, such as community-based organizations and employers, work together to support youth on a path to careers.

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Across the country, the 4.9 million opportunity youth who are disconnected from both education and work are seeking paths to employment and career advancement.  At the same time, employers are struggling to find talent for open positions. Gaining traction on these challenges requires partnerships between community-based organizations, employers, backbone organizations and other intermediaries, and other key stakeholders. This toolkit is designed to help these partners work together to support youth on a path to careers. 

Employers looking to recruit, hire, and train the workforce of tomorrow can find information on how to meet their goals through partnerships with other sectors, and innovative approaches to improving company policies for better talent retention.  Leaders of community-based organizations and other intermediaries will learn how to understand the regional labor market, engage employers, build cross-sector partnerships focused on opportunity youth employment, and develop a community strategy to increase employment opportunities for this population.    

Related Terms: 100k Opportunities, 100,000 Opportunities Demonstration Cities, 100k Toolkit

Module 1: Understanding Workforce Needs

In order to develop strong pathways for opportunity youth, it’s important for backbone organizations and other community organizations and intermediaries to understand regional workforce needs. This includes: understanding the labor market and understanding employer needs.

You can build on this foundational understanding to identify "best bets" in your region and understand what it means to take a sectoral strategy to building employment pathways.

Understanding the Labor Market

One of the first things an intermediary needs to understand is the structure of the regional labor market. Regional economies and labor markets have become more complex, rapidly changing and difficult to navigate, particularly for unskilled workers and especially for opportunity youth who usually lack the social networks and social capital to connect with the labor market.

Look at publicly available data on current employment, typical education and training requirements, occupational forecasts, and salary/wage trends to better understand current and potential future opportunities within relevant occupations. Regional workforce development boards have a wide array of this publicly available regional labor market information which backbones and their partners can access. To complement this data, it can also be helpful to consult job posting data—or real-time labor market information—which can provide up-to-date insights into specific characteristics of employer demand for particular occupations, including the skills, credentials, and other qualifications, if available.

As part of this analysis, it is useful to consult data on relevant industry sectors to better understand the specific workforce needs and opportunities of leading industries in the region. For example, the size of a particular industry (e.g., total employment in healthcare) in your region, industry projections, and the number of businesses in that industry can illuminate industry-specific trends to discuss with employers in your engagement efforts.


A Glossary of Labor Market Terms defines terms, the various coding structures, and the types of data used in labor market information and workforce development that can be helpful in understanding your regional and local labor market.

A Guide to Tackling the Labor Market includes directions for finding key data on occupations and gathering further information from online resources such as Career One-Stop, O*NET, and your state or local labor market (LMI) LMI office.

These LMI Training Modules provide a thorough overview of all steps in using labor market information, with modules on: Analyzing and Applying Labor Market Information; Assessing Your Local Labor Market; Identifying In-Demand Skills and Credentials; and Using LMI to Enhance Employer Engagement.


In most communities, the workforce development board, a Chamber of Commerce, or an office of economic development has done analysis on the regional labor market, as well. Here are some samples:

Detroit, developed by Corporation for a Skilled Workforce

Detroit's Untapped Talent: Jobs and On-Ramps Needed

Los Angeles, on the manufacturing sector

Manufacturing Career Pathways Summit: Snapshot Report

Florida, by JFF

Florida Jobs 2030

Understanding Employer Needs

Labor market information provides a useful starting point to understand specific occupations and sectors that represent strong opportunities for opportunity youth. However, the data is often most useful when paired with insights from individual employers—especially since labor markets can change rapidly and it can take time for many sources of publicly available data to catch up with those changes. Therefore, a next step is to identify and build relationships with employers to understand their needs. Interviews with key employers can lead to a more robust understanding of the regional labor market—and the unique workplace skills required by individual employers. These conversations can also identify how employers are and could be involved in workforce development initiatives.

Before approaching employers, intermediaries and their partners should consult with the regional workforce development board, chamber of commerce, and other critical regional workforce organizations to identify existing regional employer engagement efforts, and opportunities to align with those efforts. For example, the regional workforce board may be leading a regional sector partnership in specific target sectors, and the intermediary and its partners could link up with these efforts. Employers are often frustrated when they are approached by multiple organizations in the same community, so aligning employer engagement efforts helps reduce this “employer fatigue.”

In addition, before engaging with individual employers, it is important to first research them, gaining a basic understanding of their operations, priorities and workforce needs, including their key occupations. This research is critical to gain both a baseline understanding of an employer, and help an intermediary determine if it wants to pursue a potential partnership with a specific employer. These conversations can also be a first step in developing a “win/win” relationship with employers, who may not appreciate the potential ROI of hiring opportunity youth and the value-add of partnering with organizations that work with opportunity youth. The Employer Engagement Toolkit provides step-by-step instructions for engaging and building relationships with employers.

You can use this interview protocol adapted from JFF’s Pathways to Prosperity initiative to ask employers about how employers in the region are—and could be—involved in workforce development initiatives. You can use this interview protocol to talk to your area Chamber of Commerce or other economic development entity about regional needs and opportunities. For interview questions about a specific occupational area, you can draw from JFF’s Questions to Ask Your Employer Contact.

  • Phoenix has developed a tool to map employers in the Maricopa County region.
  • This case study of Villa shows how one company has made hiring opportunity youth a priority and has a proven ROI.
  • This interview protocol, adapted from Neil Rackham’s SPIN Selling, can be used to ask employers about their particular workforce needs.

Understanding “Best Bets” in Your Region

A key step in understanding your regional workforce is identifying occupations that are accessible to—and can be particularly appealing to—opportunity youth. JFF has a process to identify occupations that require little or no industry experience, are attainable with less than a bachelor’s degree, are projected to grow and have openings in a given region, have a median wage that is competitive, and offer career advancement.

JFF calls the training programs that lead to these types of occupations “best bets.” Best bet training programs are:

  • compressed and lead to a credential,
  • have strong retention and completion rates; and
  • have evidence of high job placement.

They also prepare youth for entry-level jobs that are:

  • accessible with little/no industry experience,
  • require less than a bachelor's degree,
  • are projected to grow and have openings in the region,
  • have a median wage that is at least 80 percent of the region’s median wage; and
  • offer career advancement potential.

For more information about Best Bet Services

Sector-Focused Strategies

A sector-focused strategy is an approach to helping participants pursue middle-skill jobs that are a “win/win” for employers, employees, and training providers. Through a sector-focused approach, education and training providers, intermediaries, and other organizations partner to provide offer industry-specific training that prepares unemployed workers for skilled positions and connects them with employers seeking skilled employees.

  • This Sectoral Employment Impact Study of sectoral strategies shows that participants earn significantly more, are more likely to work, and work more consistently (and with higher wages in jobs that offered benefits). 
  • Not all organizations are poised to develop a sectoral strategy. This tool can help you determine if you or one of your partners are poised to develop a sectoral strategy for your youth.
  • For examples of sectoral strategies for opportunity youth, see this brief on the Young Adult Sectoral Employment Project, led by JobsFirstNYC.
  • For additional examples (site profiles) and strategies for building sectoral models for young adults, see this National Fund for Workforce Solutions report.
  • This JobsFirstNYC brief provides examples of how organizations in the Young Adult Sectoral Project (YASEP) used labor market information to deepen their understanding of employer needs.    


Additional Resources

  • The Goals and Dimensions of Employer Engagement in Workforce Development Programs: Urban Institute
  • Sector Sheets: ACTE - Overviews of fourteen different sectors (e.g., Construction and Architecture, Media & Technology, U.S. Military), including promising college programs within each.
  • Adapt the first page of this checklist from WorkSource Lane (WorkSource Center in Oregon) to ask regional employers about their workforce needs (e.g., skills required, entry qualifications, job demand, turnover patterns).
  • This Commonwealth Corporation guide contains provides young adult–focused workforce development professionals with resources to aid in planning and executing successful employer engagement activities and related youth employment programming.

Module 2: Understanding the Talent Pipeline

Employers seeking to hire opportunity youth do not have to go it alone—communities have a range of entities that can help with recruitment, employment preparation, skill development, and even retention supports. These services and supports can be provided by community-based organizations, other skill training providers, and community colleges.

Young people represent the future workforce of this country—if we close them out of jobs today, employers will not be able to count on a robust labor market in the future, since early work experience is a very strong predictor of future employment. Employers seeking to hire opportunity youth do not have to go it alone—communities have a range of entities that can help with recruitment, employment preparation, skill development, and even retention supports. These services and supports can be provided by community-based organizationsother skill training providers, and community colleges.

While employers may perceive this local landscape as confusing, it’s important to note that in many communities, and in particular in the communities that comprise the Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund, a local backbone organization convenes the local CBOs and training providers, with workforce intermediaries that have strong ties to local employers, to build pathways that work for both employers and the young people themselves. 

The backbone organization can help build partnerships between employers and the range of organizations that work with opportunity youth. They can also help employers understand who the local opportunity youth are. Many have done data analyses, such as this publication from the Cowen Institute in New Orleans. Measure of America has done analysis of the opportunity youth population in almost 100 cities in the US, in Zeroing in on Race and Place: Youth Disconnection in America’s Cities.

Community-Based Organizations

Community-based organizations are typically the first point of contact for opportunity youth. The most effective youth-focused CBOs conduct outreach to find opportunity youth, and provide various combinations of education, employability skills development, wraparound supports, job training, job placement, and retention follow-up services as part of clear, easily accessible “on-ramp programs” for these young people that put them on a path to credentials and careers. This research brief from Heartland Alliance provides an overview of promising practices and principles to guide youth employment programs.

A key to CBO success is establishing and maintaining positive relationships with opportunity youth to help guide them on a path to employment and build skills such as initiative, self-agency, and accountability. These relationships serve as a critical support for youth as they transition into employment.

This Q&A describes a partnership between a CBO in Hartford and employers for employment readiness and retention.

Skill Training Providers

Skill training providers provide the “next step” technical training and industry-recognized credentials that opportunity youth need to gain a foothold in the labor force. Training can be provided by community-based organizations, colleges, and unions. In some communities, the CBOs providing comprehensive services also offer the first segments of technical training. Training providers must be current with industry standards and best practice training approaches for young people in order to accommodate the various needs of the opportunity youth population. 

This JFF report describes the work of five community-based organizations in California that offer employment readiness, academic programming, wraparound supports, and the first segments of technical training to opportunity youth as they progress toward credentials for in-demand occupations.

Opening the Door: How Community Organizations Address the Youth Unemployment Crisis

Full Report

Community Colleges

Community colleges provide workforce development through career and technical programs leading to an associate’s degree, through shorter certificate programs more strictly focused on occupational skills, and through short-term customized training for businesses in response to specific skill needs for incumbent workers and new hires. 

This paper describes how community colleges are using real-time labor market information to understand the hiring and skill needs of employers.

Aligning Community Colleges to Their Local Labor Markets

Full Report

Partnerships

The backbone can facilitate partnerships between employers and the range of entities that work with opportunity youth. The following video shows how Capital Workforce Partners, the backbone organization for the Hartford, Connecticut Opportunity Youth Collaborative, works with employers and community providers to build manufacturing pathways that are a win/win for the employers and jobseekers.


Employers have a critical role to play in creating policies that make it possible for youth to both work and continue their education. Often, youth can struggle to persist in getting credentials that have labor market value because they must work while going to school. CBOs can be critical allies in supporting youth in managing school and work.

This brief describes the Young Adult Sectoral Employment Project, led by JobsFirst NYC, through which employers, workforce training providers, and other community-based organizations partner to create sector-based pathways for opportunity youth to attain jobs with advancement potential.


Additional Resources

Module 3: Developing a Community Strategy

Opportunity youth find themselves outside mainstream education and workforce institutions at a critical and vulnerable time in their lives. Creating a path for them back into the workforce requires a community approach that considers what specific populations of opportunity youth to target, the existing employment pathways on which to build, and the political will and system supports that offer opportunities for leverage. Over time, a community will want to address each of these approaches as it continues to build out its strategy.

Populations of Opportunity Youth

Given that the opportunity youth population is heterogeneous, your employment pathway strategy could start with identifying which population(s) of opportunity youth to target at the outset. For example, you might consider which population of youth has the highest unemployment rates, or whether the community has already targeted a population on which to focus, such as youth transitioning out of foster care.

Employment Pathways

Another option is to start with the employment pathways and employment readiness activities that are already in place in your community. Employment pathways and activities to consider include

  • Career awareness/exploration
  • Work-based learning/internships
  • Employment-readiness, hiring, and retention supports
  • Preparation and support for opportunity youth in demand-driven career pathways

This tool walks through a process to consider what is already in place in your community, and the implications for what you find. You will then want to consider what opportunity youth population(s) are best situated to benefit based on the programming you have identified in your community.

Political Will and System Supports

Finally, you want to consider what political will and system supports exist in your community that you can leverage to support your strategy. For example, there may be a broad-based coalition that is concerned about employment options for young adults or a community-wide effort to create internships for young people that you may leverage to ensure opportunity youth are included in the effort. Systems can take on crucial roles, especially if you have identified young people who are system-involved as your target population, such as youth who are transitioning out of foster care or reentering from custody. If you already have a relationship with the system leaders you may want to look to leverage funding or in-kind supports, and if not, a first step would be to develop a stronger relationship with system leaders.

Once you have settled on a preliminary strategy, you can start to map out the roles of various partners in your approach. This tool offers a framework that lays out the roles of key stakeholders in your work to build employment pathways.

In each of these cases, the backbone organization has brought key stakeholders to the table to develop its community approach. Depending on the community, stakeholders can include the regional workforce board(s), employers, workforce intermediaries, Chambers of Commerce, community-based organizations, training providers, and youth themselves. In some communities, the collaborative has a youth leadership component, and young people themselves have played a key role in developing the community strategy—in particular, helping to design programming that they know will resonate with youth.


Additional Resources

A number of publications address employment strategies for specific opportunity youth populations, such as justice-involved youth. These include:

Stakeholders developing a community strategy should be on the same page in terms of foundational principles and goals:

  • This report from the Oregon Youth Development Council provides foundational principles for a Community Investment Strategy for opportunity youth and what they call “priority youth” in Oregon, as well as an overview of the strategy and key partners. 
  • This Aspen Institute paper makes the case for why it is critical for equity to be a goal of any community strategy focused on improving opportunity youth outcomes.  
  • This Baltimore’s Promise paper provides recommendations for better serving opportunity youth in Baltimore (but many of the recommendations are universal).

Module 4: Holding Hiring Fairs (In Development)

This module is under development.

Module 5: Building Out Paths to Employment

A backbone, its collaborative partners, and employers each play specific roles in connecting opportunity youth to employment. Partnerships between these entities are especially critical to ensure coordination. Paths to employment for opportunity youth fall into four categories, which are the sections of this module.

Entry-Level Employment and Retention

Creating paths to entry-level employment starts with preparing opportunity youth for employment.  

  • MHA Labs has information about Hireability Skills as part of their free toolkits for creating skill-building programs.

The next step is engaging employers, understanding skill requirements of open jobs, and referring youth to job openings.  

  • The Boston Private Industry Council has a job description for an Employer Account Manager, who conducts outreach to employers.
  • This brief describes employer engagement strategies and this brief gives tips for employer prospecting.
  • The NYC Workforce Professional Training Institute created this brief on connecting young people to the right employers.
  • Grads of Life makes the business case—and provides an employer-facing guide for—building student-to-work pathways for opportunity youth

Often, youth need help with applications—especially those that are online, which can be cumbersome and intimidating for opportunity youth.


Employers can benefit from learning about specific strategies for hiring opportunity youth. Employers may not know about the financial benefits of hiring an opportunity youth.

  • Grads of Life has created an employer-facing guide to hiring opportunity youth.
  • This tool walks employers through calculating the cost of a hire; it was developed for the manufacturing industry but could be adapted by any employer. 

Opportunity youth with a criminal history face particular challenges in securing employment.

  • This brief offers employment strategies for opportunity youth with criminal records.

Career Advancement

Supporting opportunity youth in career advancement requires work with employers to define advancement pathways in their company, and work with community-based organizations to support opportunity youth in taking advantage of advancement opportunities.

  • This handbook from Deloitte and the Aspen Institute makes the business case for upskilling employees, offers case studies of employers that have invested in upskilling their employees, and offers tools for employers to advance the careers of their employees.
  • The following video describes how manufacturers in Hartford are working with Capital Workforce Partners and the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology to identify, train, and advance employees from diverse backgrounds in this fast-growing field:

View a case study of pre-apprenticeship partnerships at CVS Health for youth.

Pre-Apprenticeship Partnerships at CVS Health: An Employer's Perspective

Access Case Study

Career Exploration and Work-Based Learning

To provide career exploration and work-based learning to opportunity youth, you should consider where these activities would be delivered and supported. You can then start to build out your strategy with these sites.

You might build partnerships between education programs that serve opportunity youth (such as GED programs or alternative schools) and organizations that organize career exploration and work-based learning opportunities. The Boston Private Industry Council places Career Specialists in Boston high schools, including several alternative schools. The following is a job description for a Career Specialist and tools they use in their internship program.

There are several online career exploration programs you might consider using. These include:


Additional Resources

  • This brief from the NYC Workforce Professionals Training Institute provides an overview of career exploration strategies with young adults.
  • You might work with employers to build out internship programs; Grads of Life has an employer-facing guide to doing so.
  • This JFF paper offers seven principles for effective work-based learning models that provide participants with key training and work experience, and help employers meet their needs for a skilled workforce.

Pathways to Middle-Skill Jobs

Opportunity youth-serving organizations can play a central role in preparing their young people for technical training programs that lead to middle-skill jobs.

  • This toolkit provides an overview of Registered Apprenticeships and how employers can participate and benefit. You can learn about pre-apprenticeships, which can be a critical first step for opportunity youth to access Registered Apprenticeships by reviewing DOLETA's pre-apprenticeships programs and services
  • The Young Adult Sectoral Employment Project, led by JobsFirstNYC, consists of sector-specific organizational collaborations between at least one community-based organization, one industry skills training entity, and one (or more) sector-specific employer or employer intermediary group. Partnerships create pathways to employment for opportunity youth, many of which are middle-skill jobs. Read a report on YASEP with more detail on the roles of each of the partners.
  • The US Department of Labor’s Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) program has created a free and open online library called SkillsCommons containing free and open learning materials and program support materials for job-driven workforce development. The Open Educational Resources (OER) are produced by community colleges across the nation and can be found, reused, revised, retained, redistributed and remixed by individuals, institutions, and industry. Here we feature a guide on developing soft skills or employability skills.
  • This MDRC publication describes the national experience among nonprofit workforce training providers in preparing low-skilled youth and adults for middle-skill retail jobs, and efforts to expand these approaches.
This paper describes how community-based organizations in California are providing on-ramps to these types of training programs.

Opening the Door: How Community Organizations Address the Youth Unemployment Crisis

Full Report

Additional Resources

  • Grads of Life: Online directory for employers of community-based organizations with expertise in employment pathways for opportunity youth 
  • Grads of Life: Brief with compelling stories of employers partnering with community organizations on employment pathways 
  • The Workforce Professionals Training Institute: Brief on strategies for retention in workforce development programs
  • National Career Pathways Technical Assistance Center: This paper describes how educators can build relationships with employers to help strengthen America’s middle-skills workforce.
  • This paper describes how educators can build relationships with employers to help strengthen America’s middle-skills workforce.
  • The Forum for Youth Investment’s Opportunity Youth Playbook: A Guide to Reconnecting Boys and Young Men of Color to Education and Employment offers strategies on how partnerships between organizations, schools, and employers can connect young men of color to the workforce.    

Module 6: Shifting Company Policies

Employers seeking to change practices and policies in order to boost retention know that doing so is not only good for employees; reducing turnover and retaining talent is good business. The return on investment is significant: research indicates that it costs businesses one-fifth of an employee’s salary to replace that worker.

Employers can boost retention of opportunity youth and other populations by improving company practices at each stage of the pipeline: from recruitment and hiring to get the right fit, to retention and advancement practices to hold on to talent.

Making the Business Case

Companies need to first understand the business case for hiring opportunity youth. This publication from Corporation for a Skilled Workforce lays out strategies and case studies to make the case. It includes a description of federal and state funding streams that can be leveraged for hiring opportunity youth.

Diversity and inclusion in the workplace make good business sense: research indicates that ethnically diverse companies are 35 percent more likely to financially outperform ethnically homogenous ones. This guide contains tools and materials for making the business case for diversity, and steps to build diversity and inclusion into your business.

Recruitment

Companies in the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative are showing how partnering with community-based organizations to identify and prepare youth for employment is a win/win. For example, LeadersUp partnered with SK Food Group to improve its recruitment and hiring processes, resulting in significant savings to the company. 

Hiring

Hiring opportunity youth—a largely undiscovered and untapped talent pool—can have great benefits for companies. What are the best strategies for companies to attract, interview, and hire this population?

  • Grads of Life has created an employer-facing guide to hiring opportunity youth.

Hiring interns as a “try-out” is a great way to find good talent.

  • For information about AOL’s partnership with Year Up, which recruits and trains opportunity youth in the IT sector, read the AOL and Year Up profile.
  • Chipotle uses a competency-based hiring system to find the best fit for their company. Learn more about their hiring process by reading the VoiceGlance article and characteristics

Interest is growing in “digital badges”—alternative credentials shared online as a strategy for potential employees to convey their skills to an employer. Urban Institute has done a report on digital badging.

The Rockefeller Foundation partnered with Incandescent and Knack to conduct a pilot of game-based talent analytics with youth enrolled in programs at community organizations. Their research shows that these technologies enable employers to identify promising talent from a larger pool than they might have considered, and make more informed hiring decisions. Read the Impact Hiring report to learn about the promise of game-based talent analytics.

One population often overlooked by employers is those with a history of involvement in the criminal justice system. Some employers are learning that opening the door to opportunity youth with criminal justice involvement can pay off. This toolkit for health care employers makes the case for hiring this population and provides clear strategies for recruitment and hiring. This guide provides best practice standards for the use of criminal justice records in hiring.

Retention and Advancement

FSG has conducted extensive research on evidence-based strategies for reducing turnover and improving entry-level retention, particularly of opportunity youth and other vulnerable entry-level workers. Its report describes these evidence-based strategies and includes links to resources in the areas of:

  • Providing purpose in the workplace
  • Creating opportunities for learning and growth
  • Investing in people-centered management
  • Making employee benefits relevant

A number of organizations specialize in helping employers improve retention practices. For example, WorkLife Partnership provides services to companies to improve retention through support to employees to overcome obstacles such as housing, child care, transportation, and legal issues. They also provide support in upskilling and training. Through funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, they are expanding their work to additional cities beyond their home of Denver.


Additional Resources

  • Gap Inc. developed Connecting Youth and Business: A Toolkit for Employers to offer companies clear instructions for hiring, training, and mentoring opportunity youth.
  • This Corporate Voices for Working Families paper highlights employers that invest in workforce readiness for their lower-skilled and entry-level workers, and includes a tool for calculating return on workforce readiness initiatives.
  • This paper explores employer strategies for connecting opportunity youth to education and employment, so that they may realize the advantages of using this labor pool, while providing these youth with the supports needed for success.
  • This paper from the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation features lessons learned from engaging employers and their partners across the country in developing a new demand-driven approach—talent pipeline management—to close the skills gap.
  • This paper explores employer-led solutions to young unemployment among young adults in Chicago and Louisville.
  • This report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation examines key elements that contributed to the Jobs Initiative’s accomplishments around cultural competence and demonstrates how workforce development initiatives use cultural competence to improve and increase employment opportunities for employers, job seekers, and workers.