Kenvin Lacayo

On Thursday, July 20th the Youth Transition Funders Group (YFTG) held a webinar titled “The State of Economic Well-Being for Vulnerable Young PeopleTrending Challenges & Opportunities in Youth Employment & Workforce Development”. The second installment of a 3-part learning series, the insightful 90-minute webinar featured senior representatives from education, labor, research, and philanthropy who discussed the state of employment and workforce training for youth farthest from opportunity, especially those impacted by the juvenile justice system, homelessness, and the foster care system.

Workforce Matters asked Kenvin Lacayo, an American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF) Research Assistant with the American Institutes for Research (AIR) Equity Initiative, to share his reflections on the webinar. Kenvin is a young adult who is passionate about leveraging advocacy, research, and policy interests toward education reform, mentorship, and youth empowerment.

Q: What are some of the federal investments in and approaches to youth employment that were most exciting to you as a young person? In particular, what did you think about the effort to expose youth earlier to real-world work experiences and potential college and career pathways?

A: I was most excited by the Department of Ed’s Interagency Initiative (in collaboration with the Departments of Commerce, Labor, and Transportation): Unlocking Career Success. I believe the work-based learning aspect of the program is extremely promising for my generation. Young people need to be made aware of the possibilities available for building their skill sets and networks. The proposed collaborative effort not only moves the needle for youth, but it demonstrates the importance and urgency of youth-centered investments at the federal level.

Exposing youth earlier to college and career pathways is the right path forward. High school is a great place to start, though I believe we can start even earlier in middle school! Developing a sense of purpose and direction leads to easier transitions into and engagement in post-secondary pathways. They say what you can see, you can be. I believe the equation for real-world success among youth remains exposure + accessibility = exponential possibilities.

Q: There was a lot of talk about rethinking or redesigning the systems and programs that support youth and young adults. What does that mean to you? What are some of the opportunities you can see to redesign systems and programs to better serve young people’s needs?

A: To me, redesigning the systems that support youth and young adults means taking a step back and making sure that everything comes from the perspective of understanding young people and their unique assets and challenges. We should be ready to meet young people where they are developmentally, academically, and socially.

Involving young people as co-creators of new systems and programs will help us better serve young people. Those closest to the problems must be closest to the solutions. 

Also, young people need more than just an income. They need mentorship that is embedded into programs, professional learning opportunities, and wrap-around supports like access to affordable housing and transportation. Most importantly, young people need people they can trust—and trust is best built over time. The sooner we start engaging our young people, the more likely they are to be connected to a strong network throughout their professional and personal lives.

Lastly, workforce environments should emphasize mental health support and services for young workers. The past three years have been a traumatic period for many young people. After surviving a pandemic, experiencing the struggle for racial reckoning, and witnessing other historic events, even adults are still reeling from its effects.  It is vital to take a step back to make sure our young people are okay and then continue to check in and provide support as needed.

Q: During the conversation, the panelists discussed worker voice and job quality. What’s your perspective on how employers can do a better job of ensuring young people have a voice and agency on the job? What does a quality job look like to you?

A: Employers need to be intentional about ensuring young people have agency and use their voice on the job. They can do things like start an advisory committee and place extra effort into getting young people in. When seeking feedback, it is extremely important to respond to it and close the feedback loop to build trust within the work environment.

In my mind, many factors determine whether a job is a “quality job”. Upward mobility should be feasible and attainable. I’d like to see upskilling opportunities so I don’t feel stuck. Traditional elements such as competitive pay, retirement benefits, and affordable healthcare are also key. Finally, workplaces should foster an environment where young people are able to make mistakes as a part of growing and learning on the job.