The Impact of COVID-19 on Our Work with Vulnerable Youth

April 9, 2021 @ 9:17 pm
By Lauren B. Gates & Gwyn Kirkbride

In this post for our special series on social work in times of crisis, the Workplace Center shares lessons learned and some new directions and priorities for its current and post-COVID research agenda. Founded over 50 years ago, the Workplace Center is an applied research institute dedicated to the issues that undermine successful labor force participation. Supporting the economic well-being of vulnerable young people, including young people living in poverty, and/or with juvenile justice or foster care involvement, is fundamental to this mission. The Workplace Center builds an understanding of these issues and their impact through research and evaluation, and translates its findings into practice through program and policy development, training, and technical assistance.

As the fallout of the pandemic continues to emerge, it is increasingly evident that it has touched all our lives and the repercussions will reverberate for years to come. The impact of COVID-19 is especially felt among the most vulnerable young people. Their pandemic experience has been defined by trauma and loss, onset of physical and mental health issues, disconnection from school, unemployment, and unstable housing.

The past year has brought into focus for the Workplace Center, as well as our community partners, that these young people need an abundance of support if they are to be part of the post-pandemic economic recovery and able to create positive futures for themselves and their families.

Through extensive research and practice experience, the Workplace Center developed Young Adult Work Opportunities for Rewarding Careers (YA WORC), an evidence-informed, developmentally appropriate, comprehensive career readiness program. Prior to COVID-19, we were working with educators and social service providers to integrate YA WORC into classrooms and community-based employment programs. We were also evaluating the impact of the program on career readiness, employment, education and well-being.

With the onset of the pandemic, our community partners recognized the extraordinary importance of YA WORC to provide skills and knowledge essential to compete in a post-COVID labor market and to give young people a sense of control over their futures in a time of great uncertainty.

Transitioning to online delivery of YA WORC

As YA WORC became a top priority for our community partners, we began the hard work of its transition to online delivery without losing fidelity to the program model. At the same time, we needed to be constantly responsive to the ever-changing impact of Covid-19 on young people and YA WORC implementation.

Over the course of the year, we updated all program material, trained provider staff on new protocols, strategized with staff to overcome operational challenges in resources and programs, and refined program operations and services using insights gained from formative evaluations.

Pivoting to focus on the post-COVID youth labor market

Additionally, we worked with policymakers and funders to bring greater understanding of the implications of Covid-19 for the economic future of vulnerable young people. We turned our attention to our data collection efforts to include new measures to control for and describe the impact of Covid-19 and joined in strategic planning for next steps to support vulnerable young people in a post-Covid labor market.

Covid-19 highlighted the importance of our work for policymakers, funders, and our community partners. As the economy recovers, career services will remain a priority for vulnerable young people. To continue to meet our mission to ensure vulnerable young people can gain meaningful employment and move towards secure futures, we will need to be nimble in the integration of evidence into practice—and constant in our monitoring of the fit between evidence-informed practice and context to maintain fidelity.

When we reflect on this time, we understand the critical role an applied research center plays in helping disrupted systems pivot to ensure the most vulnerable individuals are full participants in the recovery and beyond.

Lauren B. Gates, PhD, is the director of the Workplace Center and a senior research scientist at the School of Social Work. Gwyn Kirkbride, LMSW, is the assistant director of the Workplace Center and an alumna of the School of Social Work.