OCTAE has been shining a spotlight on the challenges faced by disconnected youth and the programming models focused on their challenges for the past several years. These are youth roughly 16 to 24 years of age, who are not engaged in education and not employed. They may be living at home or be homeless. They may be in or may have emancipated from the foster care system. They may be high school non-completers or those who have completed some college courses or received credentials. They may live in urban, rural or suburban communities. They may be in or released from justice-involved facilities. They may be single, married, and/or parents.
With this post, OCTAE kicks off a blog series examining what we know about disconnected youth, promising programming models, and the data used to track progress in reconnecting youth with education, training, employment, community, and their families.
We use the term “disconnected” youth, as this is the term used in the statutes and authorities that allow OCTAE to support disconnected youth. These “disconnected” youth have also been called “opportunity” youth.
Youth Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET)
If you are like me, you like good news more than bad news. That is why many of us in the youth development and education fields were ecstatic to learn that there are almost 300,000 fewer youth who are disconnected than there were in 2010. That is great news.
Not such great news is that these gains vary a lot – and we would argue, too much – depending on where youth live and their race, gender, ethnicity, and home language. Of equal concern is that there are still more than 5 million disconnected youth in our country.
The new data from the Survey of Adult Skills can inform us about youth in the United States who are Not in Employment, Education, or Training, or NEET youth, as the OECD calls these youth.
The U.S. National Supplement of the Survey of Adult Skills, released on March 10, 2016, reported on an enhanced sample in the U.S. that oversampled the unemployed, young adults (ages 16-34), and older adults (ages 66-74). These data allow us to examine the education and work status of youth, their educational and family backgrounds, skill use at work and in everyday life, and proficiency of directly-assessed foundation skills (literacy, numeracy, and digital problem solving).
As the Survey of Adult Skills data have shown, in the U.S. economy, skills matter – almost as much as a credential. The question then becomes: what skills do NEET youth possess? Do they have the foundation skills they need to re-connect and get ahead?
The U.S. National Supplement found that nearly 5% of 16-24 year olds were in NEET status, that is, not engaged in employment, education or training in the 12 months before responding to the Survey. Many of these NEET youth have very low skills. A quarter of NEET youth perform below Level 2 in literacy, and 45% perform as low in numeracy.
The literacy and numeracy domains of the Survey are reported in five levels; skills below Level 2 are considered “low-skilled” according to the OECD, which means that one’s skills are so basic they may prevent an individual from advancing or being able to take advantage of training opportunities that could lead to advancement.
By contrast, youth (age 16-24) who are engaged in education and/or employment tend to score higher in both domains. Less than 16% of youth who are enrolled in formal education and/or are employed score below Level 2 in literacy, and less than 33% score below Level 2 in numeracy.
We need to better understand who the NEET youth are so that we can provide them with opportunities to raise their skills.
These findings trigger many additional critical questions. How many youth, for instance, are young parents? How many are English language learners? How many have a disability? How many are poor or low income? How many are living on their own? Many more analyses can and must be done. Fortunately, the data are here (note: the U.S. National Supplement data is to be released summer 2016) that facilitate further learning.
I think we are at an important point in time. We know that some of our work is paying off. Having nearly 300,000 fewer disconnected youth in six years is no small feat. We also need to acknowledge, though, that what we are doing is almost like tinkering around the edges. We need a strategy that works for over 5 million youth. We need to supplement what we do with a strategy that is at scale by design. That strategy must have a prevention component to it, as well as components that re-connect youth and involve them as leaders in the effort.
Watch for future posts that will spotlight more data and positive programming models.
 See the OECD report on NEET youth at https://data.oecd.org/youthinac/youth-not-in-education-or-employment-neet.htm.
 The enhanced sample will also include individuals who were incarcerated. Findings from those data will be released later in 2016. Data from incarcerated individuals are not included in the data cited here.