COVID-19 has devastated the global economy and thrown millions of Americans into unemployment. Young Americans in have disproportionately experienced the economic fallout of the disaster, with one report showing that 52 percent of voters under the age of 45 have lost their job, been placed on leave, or had their hours cut because of the pandemic, versus only 26 percent of those over age 45. Young adults are particularly vulnerable to this economic downturn and others because nearly half of them work in higher risk industries, such as the service sector, which provide relatively low wages and limited benefits.

Efforts to educate, engage, and employ youth are critical for economic recovery. High quality career pathways can be part of the solution by helping students develop the technical and professional skills needed for jobs that are in demand and that pay a living wage. Career pathways can also increase our collective resiliency to future economic downturns by building a workforce pipeline into sectors most likely to spur economic growth, such as advanced manufacturing, bioscience, energy, health care, and information technology. Many of these sectors have direct relevance for our pandemic response.

The Study on Career Pathways for High School Students

From June 2017 to June 2020, we conducted a study on behalf of JPMorgan Chase & Co. to investigate how 10 states participating in the New Skills for Youth Initiative were designing and implementing high quality career pathways for high school students. As part of this study, we interviewed educators, business leaders, economic developers, student advisors, community partners, and other stakeholders at the state and local levels. We also collected and analyzed data on student participation in and completion of career pathways and related experiences, such as work-based learning and dual enrollment courses.

What We Learned about Career Pathways and the Economy

Our research revealed that states participating in New Skills for Youth made significant progress towards aligning their career pathways with state and regional workforce needs. Within the states, business leaders reviewed labor market information and identified industry trends to help educators prioritize career pathways in fields that would lead to promising careers and economic growth. States encouraged school districts to offer these high priority pathways by changing state accountability systems and funding requirements, providing funding and expertise, and raising public awareness of pathway benefits to students and employers.

Business leaders also identified the knowledge, skills, and experience that students would need to be successful in the labor market. Students gained these by working directly with employers through internships, apprenticeships, and other work-based learning opportunities aligned with their pathways. Involving business leaders in career pathways helped educators better understand workforce needs and engage their students.

Our findings suggest that career pathways offered today prepare students for economic success. Also, scaling these pathways may strengthen our economy and allow us to better weather economic downturns such as that caused by COVID-19.

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Julianne Payne (Research sociologist, Community and Workplace Health), Laura Rasmussen Foster (Manager, Adult Education Studies), and Sandra Staklis (Senior Research Education Analyst) to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.