Creating Conditions for Young Adults to Thrive@Work

By JFF and the Thrive@Work Innovation Council

When JFF this past spring took a deep dive into the marketplace of employee experience technology, we found the most promising innovations to help young adults thrive at work. But our interests go beyond the capabilities of such technology. We want to know the conditions — the processes, relationships, and policies — that will allow this technology to optimally meet the goal of helping young adults thrive at work.

For JFF, this question matters because, as we work to create inclusive and equitable conditions in the labor market, we place particular emphasis on the importance of young people as a vital talent source that can bridge skill gaps, drive workplace innovation, and offer diversity that aligns with changing customer bases. We know it’s imperative to consider the needs of opportunity youth (those 16 to 24 who are disconnected from school and work) and young adults from a low-income background as we scanned the market and considered the potential of employee experience technology.

To tackle the question of optimizing the technology’s benefits, we convened an Innovation Council composed of 22 thought leaders from several sectors, including young adults. The council explored innovative ideas for creating conditions for young adults to thrive at work, and in doing so focused on ideas with the potential for high impact that perhaps have not succeeded yet or might not have been applied in an effective way. Good ideas often encounter two main challenges, scale and implementation. We therefore looked at both the way ideas are disseminated and subsequently adopted by more people and the way in which ideas are carried out.

The council’s ideas build on its individual members’ many years of lived experience, research, and work in the field. We invite you to reach out to learn more about our recommendations and to explore them with us through future projects and partnership.

The Council’s Recommendations: Five Strategies to Help Young Workers Thrive on the Job

A transparent, equitable onboarding process that prioritizes providing young adult workers with a sense of agency and belonging can significantly impact employee engagement, retention, productivity, and satisfaction. All young adults deserve and will benefit from high-quality onboarding that will set them up to navigate the workplace.

Many employers have specific onboarding procedures to orient new employees to their culture, but we believe that the core components of a great onboarding experience can be promoted in order to reach more young adults and that the sharing of those components could be done at the regional level to achieve greater success. We recommend that coalitions of regional employers, with the assistance of local community-based organizations (CBOs) and an organizing intermediary, create a best practices guide for onboarding young adult employees. The CBOs could be national with local affiliates, such as Year Up and Per Scholas, or local organizations, such as The Door in New York City and JEVS Human Services in Philadelphia, that provide training and support to young adults.

The best practices guide should:

  • be digitally enabled and contain easy-to-follow checklists for both the hiring manager and the employee;
  • support creating a diverse and inclusive workplace by providing concrete tools and templates for transparent conversations in the employee’s first few weeks, with a focus on relationship building; for example, the guide might recommend that the employee and manager have a conversation about company culture during the first week, that the employee should come with questions after doing some initial research, and that the manager should be prepared to talk about the culture, including aspects that aren’t explicitly stated;
  • link to existing resources that may help (such as the Society for Human Resource Management’s new employee onboarding guide), while ensuring that the best practices guide focuses on both young adults and the region’s employers; and
  • be piloted by a group of regional employers that have a pre-existing relationship, capacity, and interest.

If great onboarding practices are widespread, it will also be easier for CBOs to prepare the youth they work with for onboarding at a new job. The standardization of a set of onboarding practices, especially on a regional level, would assist CBOs in preparing the young people they work with to enter jobs. We even anticipate that a standard onboarding guide would help entrepreneurs and other self-employed individuals to consider how they are building their brand and business and investing in the success of young workers around them.

Employee engagement and retention are most successful when employees are set up for success from their first day on the job, yet many young adults — especially those who were opportunity youth or are from low-income backgrounds — encounter a sharp transition if they start a job without having a built-in support network. Young adults benefit enormously when employers and CBOs have strong partnerships. Unfortunately, inefficiencies, different ways of operating, and unclear expectations can prevent partnership success. Better coordination and communication after young adults are hired would help.

Many CBOs have roles for people who help students prepare for and secure jobs but not a role focused on post-hire support for young adults. We recommend that a network of CBOs join to create a role that has that focus, because CBOs are accustomed to supporting youth in all facets of their lives and the need for this holistic support does not end once young adults enter jobs. Research shows that a steady adult relationship in a young person’s life has a huge positive impact, and we hypothesize that if young adults can maintain a connection with the CBO that they were previously engaged with, they will feel more supported as they enter a new job.

Housing this role within a network of CBOs — starting with a region where there are already such working relationships — creates efficiency on both sides: regional employers have one point of contact for their local CBOs, and CBOs have a shared resource specifically dedicated to post-hire success. This role (which could be filled by more than one person if the network of CBOs covers a large market) would offer post-hire support to young adults who were previously engaged with the CBOs. It would be helpful to introduce young adults to their post-hire support early on, so they can form a relationship. The support would include coaching, mentoring, and professional development. Employers would gain access to anonymized data showing how young adults are experiencing the company.

We suggest that this new role be first introduced in a region already rich in employer-CBO working relationships. We encourage a philanthropic funder to support the salary and costs of the role for the first year or two in order to establish proof of concept and then facilitate a cost-sharing agreement between employers and the network of CBOs for future years.

Research shows that technology is better able to meet the needs of users if the users are engaged in its development. But because tech companies and investors prioritize the largest user groups and ones that are most accessible to them, young users from a low-income background rarely have the chance to test products and provide input. Yet former opportunity youth can bring a rich and diverse array of life experiences to the process, and they are being overlooked. The youth also miss out on the opportunity to provide feedback that really matters.

We encourage youth training providers to form a group of interested youth that can engage with tech startups — particularly ones developing employee experience products or services — to negotiate a mutually beneficial testing partnership for user experience (UX). For example, weekly meetings could be arranged between a group of youth and the startup for one month during a key feedback period. We encourage tech startups to be receptive to such outreach and build in feedback cycles for engaging with young adult users. Regional or national intermediaries can be helpful in making these connections and reaching agreement on things such as compensation for young adults’ time. At the same time, we encourage employers making procurement decisions to ask vendors if they engaged with a diverse group of users, including young workers from low-income backgrounds, as they were testing and developing the product. Expanding user testing to former opportunity youth not only offers young workers a window into product development and testing life cycles, but also helps startups gain irreplaceable input from a growing potential customer segment, which will create business and social impact differentiators.

In order to be successful on the job, entry-level employees need to establish a foundational set of business skills such as sending a clear email, organizing a calendar invitation series, or knowing how to engage in a virtual meeting. Many young workers who have the qualifications to be hired have not yet had the opportunity to develop specific business skills, putting them at risk of being judged for that lack instead of being valued for the qualifications and perspectives they do bring.

To mitigate this risk and create the conditions for young workers to thrive, we recommend that employers be clear about skills that new hires need to have on day 1 and also provide training in core business skills as part of the onboarding processes so that it both reinforces core skills and educates new hires on the company culture. As an example, an onboarding module could train young workers on how to write concise, easy-to-read emails that contain clear action items. By participating in this module, employees not only gain the business skill, but also learn that the company values its workers’ time. This approach prevents employers from missing out on great talent and gives new employees an opportunity to more deeply internalize company culture. We posit that employers will see increased employee engagement and retention as a result of new hires being engaged in immediate opportunities for learning and growth.

Since research shows that successful hiring requires assessing how a person learns, not what they know, employers can feel comfortable hiring young adults who bring key qualifications to the job and who also can show evidence that they can be trained in key business skills during the first few months of their employment. Doing this also signals a company culture that values continued learning and feedback and invests in its employees’ growth from the onset.

To make this mindset and practice shift feasible for hiring managers, we recommend innovative implementation approaches such as allocating capacity for hiring managers to train new entry-level employees, providing incentives for clearer and more explicit language in job descriptions, and bonuses for positive 360 feedback provided anonymously by direct reports. Training for hiring managers should be delivered via a technology solution so that it can be standardized across managers.

In an age when consumers have increasing awareness of how companies are setting and meeting social impact and diversity, equity, and inclusion goals, startups and their investors need to think about how the business demonstrates social impact metrics in order to retain consumer interest. Technology startups, even nonprofit ones, often get swept up in the race to prove financial sustainability and then to maximize growth. While financial sustainability is critical to a company’s health, an exclusive focus on achieving it can cause a company to forgo social impact. Beyond the moral imperative of considering a startup’s social impact, social value also creates financial value: companies will be valued at higher figures if investors see the full range of value created, including the social value that consumers are willing to pay for.

In order to change what are considered viable metrics for success, we suggest collectively funding an effort to provide capacity support to startups in the employee experience technology market and use the funding as leverage to set and prioritize outcome metrics around social impact. We hypothesize that tech startups that demonstrate progress with social impact metrics — particularly in measuring their impact on young adult workers and former opportunity youth — will see their customer base and investment value grow. Examples of brands emphasizing their social impact in order to curate their customer base are Patagonia’s environmental initiatives, Keurig’s move to create sustainable K-cups, and shoe seller TOM’s shoe donations. Social impact programs can win new customers and also increase a startup’s investment value if investors can see the full range of value (i.e., financial and social) a startup is creating, in both the short and long term. As more startups show progress toward social impact metrics, the case that financial and social gain are not mutually exclusive is strengthened.

Incorporating social impact metrics may require investors and startups to have more patience and modified expectations in the short term for rapid growth and exponential financial returns. We suggest that long-term value creation will result from broadening the lens by which startups are evaluated to include incentivizing innovation, taking risks, and learning from failure. Tolerance for innovation, risk, and failure helps all startups be more innovative, but particularly when those whose technology is meant to improve people’s lives, as is the case with employee experience technology. Bettering the conditions for startups that care about social impact will ultimately increase the number of young workers who are thriving at work due in part to these successful technologies.

Beyond the Council

If any of our recommendations resonate with you, please reach out to us to discuss more details for implementing them. We welcome anyone or any organization that will bring passion and determination to the goal of improving the post-hire success of young workers. We see it as a new beginning in overcoming the challenges of setting up all young adults to thrive at work.

Our market scan identifies employee experience technologies that hold promise for serving young adults and identifies trends in the field to pay attention to. We’d love to know your insights from your own experience of working in this space, and we’re glad to answer any questions you have for us.

Thrive@Work Innovation Council Members

  • Ariana Abramson, CEO and co-founder of DivySci Software
  • Lashon Amado, director, Opportunity Youth United
  • Mateus Baptista, deputy director for strategy, Panasonic
  • Nancy Chan, director of philanthropy, Wood Next
  • Robert Clark, founder and CEO, Newark Opportunity Youth Network
  • Julia Freeland Fisher, director of education, Clayton Christensen Institute
  • Edison Freire, director of gateway initiatives, JEVS Human Services
  • Abby Frost, director of opportunity initiatives, Gap Inc.
  • Jacqueline Gonzalez, associate manager, innovation, Best Buy
  • Bridgette Gray, Chief Customer Officer, Opportunity@Work
  • Mark Grovic, general partner and founder, New Markets Venture Partners
  • Shawn Hulsizer, regional vice president, Wiley
  • Sarah Keh, vice president for inclusive solutions, Prudential Financial
  • Sarah K. Lee, president, EdVentures Group
  • Chris Motley, founder and CEO, Mentor Spaces
  • Duy Pham, senior policy analyst, Center for Law and Social Policy
  • Kimberly Pham, national advocate event coordinator, Opportunity Youth United
  • Allyson Redpath, former investment banker, founder of Citrine Angels
  • Emily Schaffer, managing director for technology, Year Up
  • Vinit Sukhija, partner, Learn Capital
  • Grant Warner, director of innovation at Howard University and co-founder of ConnectYard
  • Maggie Wooll, Head of Strategic Insights, BetterUp

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