Six takeaways on how young adults find good jobs

By Martha Ross, Nicole Bateman

How do young people find their way to high-quality jobs in adulthood? In broad outlines, the answer is simple: finish high school, enroll in and complete college or training that is affordable and a good fit, gain some work experience along the way, and launch a career. 

This approach works well for many young people—particularly those from middle-class and affluent families who attend good high schools, and whose parents have the know-how and financial means to navigate the college application and financial aid processes and to support their kids throughout their years in higher education.

A lot of young people, however, don’t fit this profile. So what works for them?

With this question in mind, we set out with Child Trends, a leading nonprofit research organization focusing on children and youth, to identify routes to high-quality jobs for young people from low-income families or whose parents did not go to college. Among such young people, are there particular training, education, or employment experiences from adolescence through their mid-twenties that make it more likely they will find a high-quality job in adulthood? Most of us know people who were the first in their family to graduate from college, or who succeeded despite difficult circumstances or tight budgets in childhood or adolescence. Can we identify and shine a light on the experiences that seem to make a positive difference for them?

Below are six key findings from our recent report, in which we focused on employment and job quality at age 29. Although there is no one age that signifies “adulthood,” by age 29 people have had sufficient time to finish high school, enroll in and complete college or training, perhaps have a few detours along the way, and settle into a job that provides financial security.

1. Most 29-year-olds are employed, but background matters.

The vast majority of 29-year-olds are employed. However, the share of those from disadvantaged backgrounds with jobs (79 percent) is 11 percentage points lower than among those who did not grow up in disadvantaged households (90 percent).

79 percent of 29-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds are employed, compared to 90 percent of those from non-disadvantaged backgrounds

2. Young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to have high-quality jobs.

To assess job quality, we created a measure incorporating wages, benefits, job satisfaction and hours. We scored jobs on a scale of 0 to 8, and categorized those with scores of 0-2 as low quality, scores of 3-5 as medium quality, and scores of 6-8 as high quality.

We found that those from disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged backgrounds differ not only in their employment rates (as described above), but also in the quality of their employment.

Among employed 29 year-olds, 38 percent of those from disadvantaged backgrounds have high-quality jobs at age 29—10 percentage points lower than those from non-disadvantaged backgrounds.

29-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to have high-quality jobs

3. Young people who participate in apprenticeships, internships, cooperative education, and mentoring in high school get better jobs later on.

Among 29-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds, some kinds of career and technical education (CTE) programs in high school are linked to improved job quality. We grouped apprenticeships, internships, cooperative education, and mentoring together in one category and labeled them “relationship-based CTE,” since they all involve a supportive relationship with an adult in the workplace, either a supervisor or mentor. We did not find a link between other types of CTE (career majors, job shadowing, tech prep, or school-based enterprise) and subsequent job quality. While we cannot be sure that it is the relationship in relationship-based CTE driving the finding, it is nonetheless remarkable that these programs affect job quality 10 years after high school.

4. Starting out at a higher-wage job puts young people on a higher-quality trajectory.

Our analysis identified a link between wages at age 23 and subsequent job quality. Among young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, those who earned at or under the federal minimum wage ($7.25 an hour) at age 23 had lower job quality than those who earned between $7.26 and $14.99 per hour, and lower still than those who made $15 or more per hour. Given that we controlled for education, training, work experience, and test scores, this finding strongly suggests that earlier job quality (as measured by wages) affects later job quality.

However, while early good wages can provide young people from disadvantaged backgrounds a lasting boost in the labor market, the majority (52 percent) work in the lowest paying jobs ($7.25 per hour or less) at age 23.

Few 29-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds earned at least $15 per hour at age 23

5. Training programs make a difference.

Among those from disadvantaged backgrounds, participating in a training program in one’s mid-twenties (ages 24 to 27) is linked to higher job quality at age 29. Those who participate in training earlier, either in their late teens or early twenties, do not receive a similar labor market boost. One possible explanation is that training in one’s mid-twenties is more directly relevant to a person’s occupation and career at age 29 than training at earlier ages.

6. Educational credentials matter most.

Of working young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds, 54 percent of those with post-secondary degrees have high-quality jobs, nearly 20 percentage points higher than among high school graduates, and more than double the share among those without a high school diploma.

Job quality among 29-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds increases with education

Our analysis confirms the well-documented value of degrees in the labor market. Of all the experiences we considered, having a post-secondary degree most strongly predicts job quality at age 29—more than earlier labor market experiences, earlier wages, and cognitive test scores.

Interested in learning more about our definitions of job quality, disadvantage, or other aspects of our methodology? Please refer to the Methods section of our report, Pathways to high-quality jobs for young adults.

Thank you to our co-authors at Child Trends who completed the data analysis supporting this blog.

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