If you’re a typical teenager, turning 18 means finishing high school, the start of college, maybe a job, and for most, a sense of liberation. But if you are aging out of foster care, it means the safety net disappears. Currently in the U.S. there are more than 5.5 million young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 who are unemployed and not in school. This group of Millennials is known as Opportunity Youth, and inside this hard-to-reach population exists an even harder-to-reach group: Transitional Age Youth (TAY). TAY consists of young adults ages 16 to 21 who are aging out of foster care. Every year, nearly 20,000 youth are released from care and lose benefits for food, housing, and education. According to KidsData.Org, freedom for the group is often poverty in the making. In an effort to learn more about the unique needs of TAY and the best ways to reach them, LeadersUp conducted a series of focus groups with the Transitional Age Youth (TAY) community in Los Angeles County, home to the largest population of children in foster care in the United States. 1
“Studies of youth who have left foster care have shown they are more likely than those in the general population to not finish high school, be unemployed, and be dependent on public assistance. Many find themselves in prison, homeless, or parents at an early age.”2 Equipping individuals with the necessary career skills and pathways that lead to vibrant, financially stable, and thriving lives is at the core of LeadersUp’s commitment to young adults. As a talent development intermediary focused on ending the youth unemployment crisis and closing the Opportunity Divide, it is essential to understand the groups who are in need of skills training and employment opportunities. TAY, like their peers, are individualistic optimists who want to be taken seriously. They are innate social connectors and communicators who equate success with the quality of life, not the size of a paycheck. Most notably, they are independent leaders who want real opportunities.
The Multifaceted TAY Population
Our TAY focus group found the use of social media and digital outreach by LeadersUp as the right move, and many saw the benefits of having both an online flier and physical fliers for social media posts. For example, a focus group attended by 17 young adults (9 women, 8 men), average age of 19, found there was a preference for conveying messages through humor in the form of gifs, memes, and eye-catching graphics instead of lengthy posts and fliers.
We also discovered that there was dissatisfaction in marketing strategies using urban slang in outreach and engagement efforts. The young people who belong to the Opportunity Youth demographic want to break away from the stereotypical mold of identification and representation based on race and ethnicity. By exploiting urban culture, they state that organizations such as LeadersUp are feeding into media bias regarding the African American and Hispanic communities. They preferred straightforward and professional language when being talked to—rather than any kind of language that panders to urban culture.
Leveraging New Media to Connect with TAY Population
Communication is key to strengthening the organization’s relationship with unemployed youth. One focus group revealed the types of jobs and companies that young adults would like to work for, and we found that they preferred a range and diversity in the job market. Companies belonging to the food and beverage industry, technology, clothing, retail, manufacturing, healthcare, and film and television were just some of the categories that participants wanted to see in hiring fairs. Opportunities for advancement are regarded as an important factor. Participants conveyed the need for career and job fairs that geared towards people re-entering the work force and people looking to advance careers rather than entry-level jobs. When asked about what is important to them, a career or a job, the majority agreed that having a career was their priority.
When searching for a job, participants reported they are more likely to get hired when they had direct contact with managers and were able to establish a personal connection. Half of the participants also use online job sites such as Indeed and ZipRecruiter, as well as Facebook posts and Craigslist for job opportunities. According to a study by the Media Insight Project, three-quarters of Millennials have a social networking account and frequently check Facebook to see what’s happening in their friends’ lives or seek entertainment such as funny articles or videos. The TAY focus group revealed a similar sentiment, with all participants being active on social media. However, the biggest difference was on the type of preferred social media. Facebook was seen as “old” media; something that is meant for their parents’ generation, while Snapchat and Instagram were seen as the most attractive social media platforms for today’s young adults.
The Power of Meaningful Connections and Delivering on Promises
The time spent on social media varied from person to person, but almost everyone in the study had an online presence. One individual told the group that they spend just 5 minutes browsing through social media and another attendee admitted they spend up to 5 hours online every day. They all agreed about spending a few hours a day on social networking sites. Although not a social media channel, participants stated that LinkedIn was something they access but did not have the appropriate connections to make full use of its potential for job applications. Smartphones were unanimously voted as the most preferred and commonly used device for accessing social media, watching movies, listening to music, and talking to friends. Text messages and email communication were the top two methods of communicating with young adults.
In terms of influence, participants confessed that they were not too affected by celebrities and celebrity culture. They were seen to be more skeptical of promotional material and were more likely to be influenced by friends and family members. They crave authenticity, and when asked if they would come to an event if a celebrity were present, they stated that they would prefer to see people who give back to society, someone who is a humanitarian and influential in the workplace.
When asked about their version of the American dream, common themes arose from the group: equality, equal opportunity, equal rights and freedom. The American dream was likened to success, but success did not necessarily mean more money. Many saw success as doing what they love. Their views on the economy highlighted the unfair nature of the current system, and how the economy provides certain individuals with opportunities while disregarding others. They admitted the current economy is one where everyone is on their own; as one participant put it: “It is what you make of it.”
Conclusively, in this study, LeadersUp took the initiative to reach out to those individuals who are often forgotten by the state and civil society. These individuals possess immense social and economic potential for the region and the nation at large. The study provided us with a glimpse into the thoughts and aspirations of Transitional Age Youth and their expectations from employers. LeadersUp is uniquely positioned to connect these young adults to a multitude of opportunities and empower them to build connections—that is the heart of our mission to bridge the Opportunity Divide. TAY youth, despite hardships, have a positive outlook when it comes to their career and future; with everyone having concrete goals and aspirations for their journey in life ahead. It is up to LeadersUp to ensure that these dreams and aspirations of a better future become reality, but first we must communicate messages of authentic hope and justice.
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1. US Department of Health and Human Services, “Number of Children in Foster Care by State 2005-2014,”
1. KIDSDATA.ORG, Number of Children in Foster Care in California, http://kidsdata.org/topic/20/fostercare/table#fmt=16&loc=2,127,347,1763,331,348,336,171,321,345,357,332,324,369,358,362,360,337,327,364,356,217,353,328,354,323,352,320,339,334,365,343,330,367,344,355,366,368,265,349,361,4,273,59,370,326,333,322,341,338,350,342,329,325,359,351,363,340,335&tf=79
2. Transitioning Out of Care, Foster Club.com, https://www.fosterclub.com/article/statistics-foster-care