Practice to Policy: Aligning Our Federal Workforce Policy with the Needs of Opportunity Youth

Every day social innovators and social innovation organizations across the country are measurably impacting communities and individuals. This Practice to Policy blog series lifts up the voices of the more than 70 organizations that make up the America Forward Coalition and our broader social innovation network by highlighting their outcomes-based solutions to our country’s most pressing social problems and why these solutions must be reflected in our federal policies. Today, in a piece supported by America Forward Coalition member Year Up, we will hear about the importance and the promise of the changes made in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act to focus funding on opportunity youth and to prioritize work-based learning to help them achieve their full potential. 

When America Forward formed our workforce development task force in 2012 and developed our comprehensive workforce development policy platform, it included messages and policy ideas that America Forward Coalition members believed were important to better prepare both adults and youth for the jobs employers identified needed to be filled and that would also help to shift federal policy to reward results, incentivize innovation, catalyze cross-sector partnerships, and advance equity.

In 2012, the federal workforce and job training system was structured based on an almost two decades old piece of legislation known as the Workforce Investment Act (WIA). While the policy went unauthorized, employers, the workforce, and the overall economy changed considerably. Also in 2012, the term opportunity youth was first used by John Bridgeland in his book “Opportunity Road: The Promise and Challenge of America’s Forgotten Youth” to refer to the almost six million young people who are not in school or working and who are costing taxpayers $93 billion annually and $1.6 trillion over their lifetimes in lost revenues and increased social services.[i]

The confluence of outdated policies, a growing population of unskilled or under skilled youth, and U.S. employers arguing that a shortage of qualified workers was their biggest obstacle to growth meant that something had to change. Luckily, Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle also appreciated that an update to the workforce system was required because our nation was not preparing its citizens to fill the estimated five million available U.S. jobs and thus wasting the extraordinary human potential represented by Americans trapped in poverty.[ii]

Fortunately, America Forward’s expansion into the workforce development policy space aligned with the opportunity that was finally presenting itself in Congress to reauthorize WIA. Through our policy platform process, the America Forward Coalition aligned around a core set of messages and policy ideas related to addressing the needs and gaps in the federal workforce system that we then developed an advocacy plan around.

One of the clearest messages in our policy platform was: Opportunity youth deserved a chance to gain the education and training they need to get back on track and to prepare them for the jobs of today and tomorrow. We know that most opportunity youth – and adults – do not come with the connections or social skills training they need to find a good job. They need help navigating and translating cultural cues and meeting the expectations of a workplace. Mentors and a strong peer group can help. So can work-based learning in “bridge building” jobs that offer work experience coupled with training, coaching, and transition assistance that leads to success on the job and builds a bridge to the next one. We know providing critical supports, improving access to hands-on opportunities and engagement directly with employers, and help in navigating the often-confusing education, job training, and workforce systems were critical elements that needed to be supported and resourced in any reauthorized federal workforce legislation.

With this message and our policy ideas outlined, America Forward moved to action and was involved in supporting and ensuring the passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which made many significant changes to our federal workforce and job training programs. Specifically, America Forward and the America Forward Coalition secured key provisions in WIOA, including authorizing Pay for Performance contracting; prioritizing and supporting career pathways; supporting the development of alternative, evidence-based programs that encourage youth to re-enter and complete secondary school, enroll in post-secondary education and advanced training and progress through a career pathway; promoting better coordination by aligning workforce development programs with economic development and education initiatives; utilizing prior learning assessments; prioritizing work-based learning experiences, such as internships, for youth; permitting funding of transitional jobs programs; and, continuing support for the U.S. Department of Labor’s YouthBuild program.

The law directs more resources toward programs that support disconnected or opportunity youth—referenced in the law as out-of-school youth—and specifically defined as youth between the ages of 16 and 24, not attending any school, a school dropout or a youth who has not attended school for at least the last quarter, a youth with a secondary school diploma but that is low-income and either basic skills deficient or an English language learner, a youth involved in the juvenile or adult justice system, a homeless youth, a youth who is pregnant or parenting, or a youth with a disability. Specifically, it requires 75 percent of all youth funding to support out-of-school youth, of which 20 percent is prioritized for work-based activities.

The combination of this shift to focus significant resources on the needs of this high-need population coupled with the requirement of supporting paid and unpaid work experiences such as summer employment opportunities, pre-apprenticeship programs, internships, and on-the-job training opportunities amounted to an important shift in how the workforce system was to address the workforce and job training needs of youth. In many ways, these shifts were merely catching up to how organizations such as America Forward Coalition members Genesys Works, Year Up, and YouthBuild had already been operating.

These Coalition members have developed interventions that use a combination of hands-on skills development, education and career training and support, internships, and wraparound supports to help youth compete for and secure life-sustaining jobs. They are organizations that not only recognize the importance of engaging with local employers but have structured their programs such that the skills training they provide and the internships they are offering are tied to local employer demand. Their approaches emphasize cross-sector collaboration by partnering across sectors and issue silos, including connecting education and workforce more directly so that youth are trained for the jobs of the future.

The verdict is still out on the impact of these shifts in the WIOA youth program. Local workforce systems are hopefully turning to organizations like the members of the America Forward Coalition who have been effectively serving opportunity youth for decades and have the data and outcomes to support the impact of their work. Any effort to change the circumstances of those now left out of the economic mainstream – and reverse the negative impact on our overall economy – demands that we rethink the way we invest public resources as well as learn from what is identified to work and expand upon that work to enable students, youth, and adults from all backgrounds to succeed economically. The success of our Coalition members tells us that it is possible to achieve these goals and forge a pathway for Americans from poverty to economic prosperity. But it will take hard work and investment in effective efforts currently underway.


[i] C.R Belfield, H.M. Levin and R. Rosen. “Economic Value of Opportunity Youth,” January 2012,;


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