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Key to America’s future economic success is a strong career readiness infrastructure, one that prepares today’s youth to find future success. Building such an infrastructure requires collaboration among education, industry, government, and the non-profit sector. It also requires states to continually assess their career readiness policies and practices to ensure they are both meeting local and regional workforce needs and advancing economic and social mobility for all workers.

To do this, states can examine key data points at four stages in the education and employment lifecycle, starting with K-12 education. Indicators that map to efforts to launch future-ready youth include student-to-school counselor ratios and several postsecondary engagement metrics, among them Advanced Placement® (AP) test scores, Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) completion rates, high school graduation rates, and rates of entry into two- or four-year degree programs.

Data also show a strong correlation between postsecondary education retention and completion rates and employment and earning prospects in adulthood. So, states must also help students navigate the transition to adulthood, and the first step is collecting and analyzing strong metrics on postsecondary outcomes immediately after high school in order to identify where gaps exist. Using such data, states can then design and implement effective strategies for improvement, and many are already using innovative approaches to do so.

Postsecondary outcomes are not the whole story, however. Many young adults ages 19-27 encounter significant barriers preparing for and obtaining “good jobs,” indicating the need for more strategic career planning, including guidance about both degree and non-degree pathways to employment in high-demand, high-wage occupations. Central to this is working to decrease rates of disconnected young adults, meaning those who are not working or participating in any form of education or training, and understanding young adults’ economic outlook, as indicated by median hourly and living wages.


Whatever path they take, young adults must be able to sustain pathways to success, with a focus on economic and social mobility. While many adults today make significant gains by their mid- to late-30s compared to previous generations, those without a four-year degree are still disadvantaged, despite many high-demand jobs not requiring one. Moreover, significant gaps persist for women and adults from historically underrepresented backgrounds and/or who have disabilities. Thus, individuals must have ongoing access to career advising. Key indicators to assist in determining where continued engagement is needed include adult median hourly and living wages and college loan default rates.

There are a number of action steps states can take to improve the career readiness infrastructure. States can look to and leverage landmark pieces of federal legislation, specifically, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V), Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA), and Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), as well as the pending Youth Workforce Readiness Act (YWRA), as all incorporate funding for required and allowable career and workforce development activities.

Going forward, we must ensure all youth, young adults, and adult workers can effectively prepare for, obtain, and retain jobs that allow them to grow, thrive, and contribute to America’s future economic success. The key is making career readiness the number one goal of American education and workforce development—at all stages and all ages—and positive, sustained change starts at the state level. 

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