More than any other demographic, Californians age 16 to 24 years old suffered the worst unemployment rate during pandemic. While it’s improving—from a high of 24.5% in March 2021 to 19.7% in June—the rate of joblessness is more severe for foster youth, those experiencing homelessness, LGBTQI, and those of color.

An expanded Los Angeles-area program addresses the issue by providing skilled labor for an evolving labor market. Youth@Work started as a summer job program 15 years ago and has gone through several name changes. But the goal to prepare and connect Los Angeles County youth for employment has remained unchanged.

“Several studies over the years have proven that the age 14 to 24 is a critical time in a young person’s life when young people need to be connected to education and/or employment,” says Felipe Moscoso, acting human services administrator for Los Angeles County’s Youth Workforce Development Programs. “Their future and our collective future depend on it. Literally.”

Those under 18 years of age need parental permission to participate. Open to county residents, applicants apply online. Priority is given to youth who have dropped out of school, struggling to stay in school, and those who may have graduated but don’t yet have a job nor are enrolled in classes.

In less than two weeks, applicants receive a response from an America’s Job Centers of California (AJCC), which will help them complete the enrollment process. All youth need to provide “right to work” documentation following Form I-9 guidelines.

“The Youth@Work program equips and empowers teens in our communities who are most at-risk of falling through the cracks,” says Kathryn Barger, county supervisor. “Even as we battle the current public health crisis, L.A. County remains committed to provide youth with educational and employment opportunities to bolster their skills, increase their confidence, and propel them toward career success. Especially now, L.A. County communities will be strengthened by the innovation, creativity, and determination of our youth.”

Industries were adopted by the Workforce Development Board and selected based on labor market intelligence from the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, the State of California Employment Development Department, and additional local efforts through the AJCCs. The AJCCs work with local businesses in the service area and evaluates them for hosting youth employees. In addition, the Los Angeles County Workforce Development, Aging and Community Services partners with industries across the nation and brings in AJCCs for potential partnerships and initiatives.

Youth@Work follows an “earn and learn” model. Once fully enrolled, participants receive 20 hours of subsidized soft skills development and 100 hours of paid work experience with a private, non-profit or public employer. Wages are $15 an hour for a total of 120 hours. Because of health and safety concerns, youth have been provided with remote training and work opportunities. Once the program is completed, they may qualify for additional career services.

“The program also challenges youth to imagine what they may want to do in the future based on their interests now,” Moscoso says. “This program is beneficial to local employers as it provides them with an opportunity to mentor and invest in their communities. Employers often hire our youth on a permanent basis. Youth at Work is critical for young people who have been underrepresented in the job market and who often face the higher barriers or disconnection to employment due to lack of opportunity, guidance, and experience.”

Priority industries in the program include those driving COVID-19 recovery efforts such as health and digital media, he adds. To address digital media skills, WDACS introduced a new digital workforce platform called Career EDGE that enables youth to learn about specific industries through online modules and activities that are self-paced.

Youth@Work serves about 10,000 youth a year. It’s one of six county workforce development boards that collectively serve 25,000 youth a year.

Moscoso says participants are often selected to speak at special events about their experiences. “Success is a youth who graduates from high school and is committed to be the first person in their family to go to college. Success is also a young person who keeps coming back yearly and inspires a new friend to join each time.”

Moscoso continues, “Success is hearing a young person say that during the pandemic, they lost a parent and a grandparent and were close to ending their own life were it not for the engagement and sense of hope provided through Youth@Work. Success is connecting with a professional who says, ‘I got my start in a program like this; how can I help?’”