Abstract: COVID-19 Impacts on Local Youth and Young Adult Workforce Development Programs (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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COVID-19 Impacts on Local Youth and Young Adult Workforce Development Programs

Saturday, January 14, 2023
Hospitality 2 - Room 444, 4th Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Ashley Palmer, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Texas at Arlington, Arlington
Mansi Patel, MBA, LMSW, Doctoral Student & Graduate Research Assistant, University of Texas at Arlington, McKinney, TX
Shellye Sledge, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Texas at Arlington, Arlington, TX
Katherine Kitchens, Student, University of Texas at Arlington, TX
Kaiden Cassano, Student, University of Texas at Arlington, Arlington
Background: In 2020, an estimated 12.6% of U.S. individuals ages 16 to 24 were disconnected youth (i.e., not engaged in education or employment). These youth and young adults (YYA) face barriers to education, training, and employment. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014 (WIOA) authorizes youth-focused workforce development programs that seek to increase economic self-sufficiency among YYA and provide services that may support and enhance healthy development (Bloom, 2010). Local workforce development boards are essential as labor market intermediaries for disconnected YYA. However, COVID-19 and ensuing mitigation measures exposed structural inequities in access to educational systems, workplace environments, and employment opportunities. The current study explored how COVID-19 impacted local youth workforce development programs, providers, and the YYA they serve.

Methods: The sample included 12 youth-serving staff from three agencies in a metropolitan area in one southern state and seven YYA from one of the agencies (n=19). We used purposeful sampling, engaging program administrators as gatekeepers to recruit participants. Semi-structured interview guides were developed for data collection. Two staff focus groups (n=4 and n=5), one YYA focus group (n=6), three staff interviews, and one YYA interview were conducted. Trustworthiness and rigor were enhanced using multiple coders, peer debriefing, and member checking. Thematic analysis procedures recommended by Braun and Clarke (2006) were used to analyze data.

Findings: Three primary themes represent provider perspectives on how COVID-19 impacted service delivery and providers' roles: (1) increased challenges with recruitment, engagement, and retention, (2) decreased job satisfaction and perceived self-efficacy, and (c) adjusting to new work-life balance. All YYA began the program during COVID-19, so they did not speak to the impacts on the programs themselves. Providers described three primary impacts on YYA they serve: (1) stability and safety of living situation, (2) an increase in mental health needs, and (3) increased availability of resources like food but constrained access to critical resources like obtaining government IDs. YYA themes focused on (1) increased availability of resources like food but constrained access to critical resources like transportation and internet, (2) impacts on employment and education plans, and (3) adjusting to new norms of hygiene and safety protocol.

Implications: Providers faced a myriad of problems during the COVID-19 pandemic related to YYA recruitment and participation as well as lower job satisfaction and perceived self-efficacy. Likewise, YYA were affected by unstable living situations, increased mental health struggles, restricted access to critical resources, and disruptions to education and employment. Implications include a need for workforce system policies to allow workforce development program contingencies during unprecedented times. Likewise, policies must ensure YYA have access to resources that support their health and economic stability, such as transportation, childcare, housing, and technology, as they participate in programs that support their future well-being.