Surprising(?) correlations between job preparedness, reading ability, employment, and college enrollment for youth in foster care

Young people transitioning out of foster care lag behind their peers nationally on measures of employment and college enrollment.

The National Longitudinal Study of Youth (1997) finds that

  • 41% of 19 year olds are enrolled in 2- or 4-year colleges
  • 91% of youth are employed between the ages of 18 and 19

By comparison, a multi-site evaluation of youth transitioning out of foster care finds that

  • 25% of 19 year olds are enrolled in 2- or 4-year colleges
  • 75% are employed between the ages of 18 and 19.

In an attempt to establish a relationship between job preparation programs and employment, the Urban Institute recently put out a brief that tackles the question, Do youth in foster care accurately assess their preparation for work? Specifically, Marla McDaniel and Michael Pergamit want to know if the confidence a 17-year old has about her ability to apply, get, and keep a job is a good predictor for whether she will be employed and/or in college by age 19.

Because the level of job preparedness is self-reported, the researchers used a standardized reading assessment as an objective indicator of achievement. A “high” reading ability indicated that a 17-year old was reading at the 9th grade level or above. Based on the combined results of a survey on job preparedness and the reading test, the sample population of youth in Los Angeles County’s Life Skills Training (LST) program were divided into four groups:

  1. 18 % were highly prepared and high reading ability
  2. 22% were highly prepared and low reading ability
  3. 23% were less highly prepared and high reading ability
  4. 36% were less highly prepared and low reading ability

It should not surprise that for each outcome (e.g., employment status, earnings, college enrollment), youth with a very high sense of job preparedness and high reading ability fared the best. What caught my attention, however, was that job preparedness seems to be a stronger predictor of employment and college enrollment than reading level. Specifically, the findings were that “Youth with a very high sense of job preparedness are more likely to work currently, are more likely to have worked in the past year, and have worked more months than youth with a lower sense of preparedness, regardless of reading ability.” (McDaniel and Pergamit 4; emphasis mine) What’s more, “Youth with a very high sense of job preparedness and low reading ability are significantly more likely to be both working and in college than youth with similarly low reading ability but with a lower sense of preparedness.” (5)

At the highest levels (youth in care who felt a high sense of job preparedness and had a high reading ability), the gap between the foster care population and the national average narrowed considerably:

63% of foster youth (high preparation, high reading) were employed at age 19

65% of youth nationally were employed at age 19

87% of foster youth (high preparation, high reading) were employed between the ages of 18 and 19

91% of youth nationally were employed between the ages of 18 and 19

41% of foster youth in care enrolled in college at age 19

41% of youth nationally enrolled in college at age 19

The only significant difference between these two population samples was the fact that 74% of foster youth/former foster youth were enrolled in 2-year programs, while only 31% of youth nationally were enrolled in a 2-year college.

It must be emphasized that the results indicate only a correlation between a high sense of job preparedness and employment, and that the study does not attempt to capture precisely what made the youth feel ready for employment. (Interestingly enough, in an evaluation of LA County’s LST, researchers concluded that classroom-based trainings—including employment workshops—did not significantly improve the outcomes of youth transitioning out of care.)

What does this mean for program administrators and practitioners?

Well, hopefully these results do not discourage us from getting our youth past a 9th grade reading level. On a more serious note, however, it does underscore the importance of endowing our youth with confidence in their job preparedness—which, I wager, exceeds competence in “hard skills” to encompass feelings of efficacy and having a sense of direction. The brief reminds us that young people have a good ability to gauge how ready they are to take on the challenges of early adulthood, and that we should, by extension, take their perspectives into account in our program design. At the same time, McDaniel and Pergamit also caution that regardless of how confident young people feel about their futures, they nonetheless need continual support around the area of employment.

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