How Positive Youth Development Approaches Can Inform Your Business Choices

Whatever the future of work may be, there’s one thing we know for sure: young people today will be doing most of it.

The U.S. is currently going through one of the most profound demographic shifts in its history, with over 10,000 baby boomers reaching retirement age each day. 73 million are expected to retire by 2030. Meanwhile, the generations now entering the workforce, Generation Z and Generation Alpha, are the most diverse in U.S. history. According to Pew, 48 percent of Gen Z are people of color, including 25 percent who are Hispanic, 14 percent who are Black, and 29 percent who are either foreign-born or born of immigrant parents. Gen Alpha is the first majority-minority age cohort in U.S. history.

If you’re a business owner or leader, and you want to set your organization up for success over the long haul, how should you be thinking about these changes? Your organization’s current leadership is probably considerably older and less diverse. Meanwhile, the U.S. labor market remains tighter than it has been for generations, and experts believe it will remain so for the foreseeable future. This has been a major stressor for companies, many of whom still struggle to fill open positions, which in turn can take a toll on productivity and customer service.

Companies that want to succeed in this labor market need to rethink their recruitment and retention strategies, as well as their succession plan. Employers are used to thinking about professional development for their employees. But given this generational shift, employers may also want to start learning more about youth development. And in this arena, the business community may have something to learn from social services.

An approach that has been increasingly embraced by social service agencies is positive youth development (PYD), a science-based set of practices for working and interacting with young people. Essentially, positive youth development is an intentional, prosocial approach that draws on young people’s strengths by giving opportunities, building positive relationships, and supporting youth to develop leadership skills. Positive youth development is rooted in decades of research on brain development and has been applied in multiple contexts including international development, sexual and reproductive health programming, and workforce development.

In 2018, as part of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Generation Work™ initiative, Child Trends created a tool called PILOT. It provides useful guidance on ways that service providers can use positive youth development practices to help young people thrive. Generation Work supports partnerships in eight communities that are working with employers to identify practices that address labor market disparities and improve hiring, retention, and promotion of young adults of color.


  • Positive Relationships: Foster positive, respectful, and supportive relationships with and among participants that provide guidance, effective communication, and social support.
  • Improved Skills: Provide opportunities for participants to learn technical, intellectual, emotional, and social skills and prepare for jobs and further education.
  • Linkages Across Schools, Work, Families, and Communities: Recognize and support positive linkages among participants, schools, workplaces, families, and communities.
  • Opportunities to Contribute and Belong: Provide opportunities for meaningful inclusion of all participants and encourage them to give back by making meaningful contributions to their workplaces and communities.
  • Trustworthy and Safe Settings: Provide settings that guarantee physical and emotional safety for all.

The National Fund and Child Trends are working together to support Generation Work partners’ implementation. Through this work, we quickly saw that these practices are relevant not just for social services, but for workplaces too. The elements of positive youth development sound a lot like things we know are important for the functioning of any company: skill building, leadership development, positive relationships, and opportunities to contribute. There is also strong alignment between PILOT and the National Fund’s Job Design Framework, and Job Quality Outcome Maps. These two tools lay out the elements of high-quality jobs and demonstrate how they are connected to business success.

Here are some examples of applying positive youth development practices in the workplace:

Intentionally foster positive relationships – especially between managers and frontline employees. It’s right there in the name: Positive, supportive relationships are the bedrock of positive youth development, as well as being correlated with many good business outcomes. Formal or informal peer mentoring can be one effective way to achieve this outcome. An employer that has done this is Summit DD, which coordinates services for disabled people across several home care providers in their community. Summit developed a success coach program that pairs experienced aides with new hires and has been shown through a third-party evaluation to significantly reduce turnover, while also helping new employees overcome barriers to success in the workplace.

Build structured ways for skill improvement: Young adult workers need supportive, structured opportunities to develop and practice new technical and soft skills. An effective way to do that is to create an apprenticeship program. For example, RUSH University Medical Center, a Generation Work employer in Chicago, IL, and 2019 CareerSTAT Emerging Champion, has a well-developed apprenticeship for Patient Care Technicians.

BJ Krech, RUSH’s Associate Vice President for Talent Strategy, explained the program this way: “It’s part of our anchor mission strategy, as we focus on recruiting residents of Chicago’s West Side. Participants start their apprenticeship with a five-week program, including both didactic and clinical components, at Oak Point University. After completion, they can sit for their certification exam, and in passing, become eligible to be hired as Patient Care Technicians. Tuition is pre-paid, and we have graduation and placement rates of about 90%.”

For further details, see RUSH’s 2019 CareerSTAT profile here.

Link to the community. Young adult workers have challenges, as well as sources of support, outside of work that affect their ability to show up in the workplace. To support young adult workers, companies can remove barriers and capitalize on supports. For instance, Masonic Homes, a senior living center in Louisville, Kentucky, invested in community partnerships to provide its direct care workers with bus passes and discounted cell phone plans. These new supports have received a very positive response at the organization.

Give opportunities to contribute and belong. It is often observed that younger workers want more than just a paycheck – they want their work to be meaningful and to impact their community, too. Giving young adult workers ways to provide feedback and input builds feelings of belonging and engagement. For example, Paradise Tomato Kitchen (PTK), a food processor in Louisville, KY, instituted a policy of “Checkpoint interviews” where rotating organizational leaders would conduct standardized check-ins with all new hires over their first ten weeks. PTK found that this process increased trust up and down throughout the company, as new hires discovered how many people they could go to for support.

Build an environment marked by trust and safety: Young adult workers thrive in positive work environments that are both physically and emotionally safe. One way to do that is by investing in coaching approaches to supervision and management. For example, Freedman Seating, a furniture company engaged by Generation Work partners in Chicago, initiative provided training and better support to their managers. that allowed them to challenge the stigma of asking for help, and the company invested in a navigator extension to their Employee Assistance Program to assist staff with any issues that they may be facing.

If you want to try applying PILOT in your workplace, here’s a few final thoughts and resources that can help you get started:

  • Be mindful of equity and inclusion: People bring their past experiences to work, and those experiences can be shaped by social forces beyond our individual control. It’s important to remember that people of different backgrounds – including race, religion, gender, and sexuality – may also have different experiences of trauma related to work. The National Fund’s Trauma-Informed Approach to Workforce can be a useful guide here.
  • Learn from other companies: In the coming years, the National Fund and Child Trends will be lifting up and sharing how Generation Work partners are working with employers to embed positive youth development practices, including practices that are particularly important for a diverse workforce.
  • Join an industry partnership: Some of these issues can be most effectively addressed through collaboration across employers and regions, rather than just on the enterprise level. That’s why the National Fund supports the development of industry partnerships, when a group of companies and workforce organizations band together to solve shared challenges. If you’re struggling with recruitment and retention issues, it’s likely your peers are as well. Almost every National Fund collaborative operates at least one or two industry partnerships – if you want to get started on this path, find your closest community here!

Further Readings/Resources

Tom Strong and Vanessa Sacks

-- Director of Employer Activation; Research Scientist II, National Fund for Workforce Solutions; Child Trends