As the U.S. Economy Recovers, National Service Can Keep Vulnerable Young Workers Engaged in the Workforce

A teenager working with an AmeriCorps program uses a wheelbarrow to haul clippings to a garbage can after trimming bushes in the garden of a Denver elementary school, July 2008.

The massive economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are not being felt equally. Unemployment in the United States is at the highest rate since the Great Depression, but many of those hardest hit are lower-wage workers in the hospitality and retail sectors, which disproportionately employ young adults and people of color. Creating an economic recovery that benefits all workers requires prioritizing inclusive growth and a new vision for workforce development.

National service is a workforce intervention that helps connect workers, including young people, with job training and employment opportunities, and it has a long history in this country. Policymakers should expand and adopt national service as part of a broader jobs strategy to provide younger workers with meaningful work experiences and keep them engaged in the labor market.

Going into the coronavirus crisis, younger Americans already faced workforce challenges. For example, the average unemployment rate was 3.5 percent for all workers when the economy was practically at full employment back in February, but the unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds was more than double, at 7.7 percent. The jobless rates for Black young adults were even higher, at 14 percent. Now, months into the coronavirus-fueled recession, unemployment is at a whopping 29.9 percent for teenagers ages 16 to 19 and 23.2 percent for young adults ages 20 to 24; that’s compared with 13.3 percent for the rest of the recently unemployed. For Black and Hispanic or Latino teenagers, current jobless rates are staggering—at nearly 35 percent and more than 37 percent, respectively.

Also, younger workers experience a higher-than-average poverty rate and comprise half of all workers who earn the minimum wage or less. Although this wage gap can be partially attributed to the lack of work experience of young people, it is more so due to structural problems—to labor markets that are restrictive and segmented, which inadvertently create disincentives for employers to hire young people.

Reopening plans are now underway in every state and Washington, D.C. Without a cohesive plan to address the structure of youth labor markets, however, efforts to achieve an inclusive economic recovery run the risk of leaving young people out of the workforce. Interventions are needed to more firmly attach young people with meaningful jobs and work-based learning opportunities. Otherwise, younger, less-experienced workers will only continue to face barriers to obtaining employment, or worse, be left churning between low-wage jobs.

National service opportunities give young adults a path to employment by connecting them to hands-on, skill-building experiences that could last up to a year or more. While some are volunteer-based, many national service programs provide a stipend and health insurance, trainings that can lead to industry-recognized certifications, and scholarship money for education or further training—all measures that suggest youth labor market success. Further, having access to basic employment benefits such as health insurance is especially important, as younger workers have higher uninsured rates and, therefore, are less likely to be covered than older workers. Research has shown a relationship between improving health care coverage for young adults and better outcomes in education and employment.

National service members also build a professional network and develop core competencies of communication and problem-solving. When it comes to accessing employment opportunities, a “resume-based experiment” showed that younger workers with a record of AmeriCorps service received job interviews 24 percent of the time, compared with 17 percent for those without service experience. In addition to building individual skill sets, the economic benefits of service are enormous compared with the cost, with net gains of almost $4 in future societal benefits for every $1 invested in national service programs.

Especially during economic slowdowns, younger workers who were already at a work experience disadvantage are at a higher risk of permanent effects such as reduced employment and wages compared with those who have a longer track record of working. National service can help these workers weather entering the labor market during weak economic conditions. Through this work-based connection, national service has the potential to extend a resilient bridge to successful employment outcomes in terms of improving social and human capital over the long term.

The idea to provide service-led experiences to young people during an economic downturn is not new. Among the measures taken during the economic crisis of the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). With an allocation of about $1.4 billion to coordinate CCC activities and other employment in public works, this federal program put 3 million unemployed young men to work building parks, bridges, airports, roads, and other public facilities that remain in use today, as well as gave them a wage, meals, and education. This workforce response helped reduce the unemployment rate from almost 17 percent to under 10 percent, brought money to American families, and helped build U.S. infrastructure. It also gave young people purpose.

The CCC of the 1930s was a success by many measures, but it was flawed. Though the program was open to all young men, Black and Native American corps members faced institutional discrimination. Expanded investments in service programs must be made equitably, prioritizing opportunities for young adults in communities of color who are bearing the brunt of the negative economic and health outcomes of the pandemic.

The general model of the CCC remains today in a network of thousands of national service programs, including conservation corps, YouthBuild programs, and City Year. Across urban and rural communities, these programs engage young people in activities that address a range of issues, from protecting the environment by removing invasive species in national parks, to combating food insecurity by growing produce in food deserts, to advancing education equity through tutoring students in underresourced schools. Importantly, these existing national service programs are often operated by local nonprofits, schools, and governments. They are grounded in engaging communities in identifying and meeting local needs.

Congress recently introduced legislation that would expand AmeriCorps, which administratively and programmatically oversees a network of local and national service organizations, to 250,000 participants over three years. The number of AmeriCorps positions could grow from 75,000 to 150,000 the first year, 200,000 the second year, and 250,000 the third year. These participants would help staff food pantries, operate emergency shelters, and meet other urgent needs.

Notably, in keeping with newly released recommendations from the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service, this legislation would increase stipends and the amount of the Segal AmeriCorps Education Award, as well as exempt the award from income taxes. These changes would make service a more accessible, viable option for young people who lack other financial support.

Expanding national service as part of broader job creation efforts underscores the relationship between youth labor market experiences and labor market outcomes. As President Roosevelt said in 1934, “No country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources.” No one knows how long this pandemic will last, but history has shown that service programs provide the kind of labor market resources young people need to stay engaged and to feel supported. Moreover, national service can contribute to a workforce strategy that takes an inclusive path toward full economic recovery.

Livia Lam is a senior fellow and the director of Workforce Development Policy at the Center for American Progress. Mary Ellen Sprenkel is president and CEO of The Corps Network, the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps that provides young adults and veterans national service opportunities through projects on public lands and in rural and urban communities.