Why 1 in 7 Young Houstonians Neither Works Nor Attends School

Ryan Holeywell | @RyanHoleywell | September 28, 2016

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An estimated 111,000 young people ages 16 to 24 in the Houston area neither work nor attend school, according to a new study published today by the Kinder Institute and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

Though the U.S. economy is gradually showing signs of rebounding, that population — known as “disconnected” young people, is growing both locally and nationally. In Houston, it represents 14 percent of the age group.

The study concludes that the population faces major hurdles — cyclical poverty, familial obligations, health concerns and a sense of disconnection from the education system and workforce — and therefore requires a special effort to address.

“This report underscores how important it is to connect this group of young people to postsecondary education and training programs,” said Bill Fulton, director of the Kinder Institute. “This kind of training will help them achieve long-term success in the job market.”

The report, which relies on census and Kinder Houston Area Survey data, among other sources, offers  a revealing look at the characteristics of disconnected young people. The reserach was supported by a grant from JPMorgan Chase & Co. Among the report’s findings:

  • Despite assumptions about “inner-city youth,” some of the largest numbers of disconnected young people in the Houston region are outside the city in areas near Angleton, Baytown, Cloverleaf, Humble and Texas City.
  • Both service providers and young people said they believe “disconnection” is associated with a lack of motivation and low self-confidence that’s a result of stressful home lives, insufficient finances, detachment from school and neighborhood challenges.
  • Disconnected young people are more likely than their peers to have a parent who has not completed high school, and they are more likely than their peers who work or attend school to have a parent who is not currently working.
  • Despite its circumstances, the group is incredibly optimistic. Seventy-two percent of its members expect to be better off within a few years.

Researchers, working largely off of interviews and focus groups, also identified obstacles facing disconnected young people. In many cases, they may be receiving limited guidance from adults in their life. In others, young people themselves said they felt like their schools don’t offer enough direction. “There’s no structure. There’s no focus. There’s no learning,” one young person said in an interview. “Nobody’s comprehending.”

Familial obligations may also hinder young peoples’ ability to pursue school or work. Researchers heard the story of one high school dropout who was persuaded to re-enroll, but ultimately was unable to, because her school district offered no online, night or weekend classes. Attending school would require her to quit the job that she needed to support her family.

Researchers also heard time and time again that disconnected young people were often unaware of opportunities to work in well-paying, middle-skills jobs that required some training but not a diploma.

So what should be done to address this challenge? Researchers drew on several sources, including stakeholder interviews and successful, proven programs in other communities. They offered several takeaways:

  • Actively reaching out to young adults and building relationship with them is the key to serving this population effectively. An “Opportunity Assessment Tool” — basically, a guided interview — can be used to facilitate the dialogue between service providers and young people to help identify not only the barriers facing that person, but his or her aspirations and abilities too.
  • “Wrap-around services” that target multiple areas of need simultaneously may help this population navigate a fragmented social services system and keep them engaged.
  • Alternative credentialing and education programs, outside the typical high school environment, have been proven to re-engage students who are otherwise struggling.
  • Innovative training programs such as the “Earn and Learn” model, with enhanced mentoring and personalized curricula, may fill a critical service gap.

Throughout the report there is another consistent theme: the need for early intervention.

That’s because once a young person actually drops out of school, or disengages from the workforce, it can become more difficult or take much longer to guide young people towards their career and education goals.

“It’s crucial that those serving this (population) make these young people aware of educational and career opportunities well before they reach even the 8th grade,” the researchers wrote in their report.

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