Muskegon, Muskegon County's online magazine

Youth Employment


The Skills: 47% of American high school graduates take their first steps as an adult without any college or career ready courses of study according to the Midwest Education Trust. Too many students leave high school with a diploma in hand but with no clear path forward.

Graduation rates are at all time highs, but 64% (nearly two-thirds) of employers see a skills gap in their companies (according to Wiley Education Services 2019). What does this mean for our community, and what programs are available for our recent/future grads?

What Does the Skills Gap Mean For Our Young People?

College readiness has changed in school structures, culture, and instructive programming to better prepare students for postsecondary studies. In 2020, even amongst the COVID Pandemic, 54% of Michigan High School graduates enrolled in college within six months of graduation, in 2019, this number was 59.8% (Bridge MI). Many of these students may not be ready for postsecondary school, or need to work in order to cover the costs.

Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are 14% less likely to complete a college-prep or career readiness course before graduation. Of students who do not take postsecondary readiness courses (whether available or not) are twice as likely to fail at least one course in postsecondary education.

The starkest difference in graduates who have completed college or career readiness programs are between white students and students of color. 82% of white graduates had the availability for college readiness and career readiness programs versus just 51% of black graduates and 63% of Latino Graduates (Midwest Educational Trust).

The results are that graduates of color and/or low income families take on a wider range of postsecondary debts to pay for college or job training with an increased gap in skills/education when starting. The average college undergraduate debt level is $30,000 (Education Trust 2020). For Black students, these rates are even more alarming with an average of 13% higher than any other racial group.

Structural barriers often prevent Black high school students from equitably accessing college and career readiness courses and materials, and that can have cost implications for those who overcome barriers to go onto college and/or skill trades positions. In fact, according to the NCES, in 2019, only 27% of Black students took courses for postsecondary credit or career readiness programming while in high school, lagging behind all other racial or ethnic groups.

Families with less income and wealth have less money to pay for college or trades school. While it is not uncommon for students to graduate without set career goals or to change their majors during postsecondary schooling, “figuring it out” along the way can be costly – particularly when it extends a graduate time. Even with federal supports, there is still gaps the ability to pay for schooling/training. Especially for ALICE families who have little or no disposable income for these costs.

Given the high debt levels, there needs to be more career building and college preparation programs supported for our young people. Early career exposure and guidance can help these graduates navigate their next steps in ways that are intentional and cost-efficient.

Local Programing Information

Career and technical education (CTE) provides an important pathway to success for high school students/recent graduates and offers each student opportunities to personalize their education based on their career interests and unique learning needs (US Dept. of Education). It can offer career exploration and career-building activities in the classroom as well as hands-on learning experiences outside the classroom such as on-the-job training, internships, practicums, clinical experiences and cooperative education.

United Way of the Lakeshore and DTE Energy Foundation believe that CTE is crucial for our youth success. Together, they fund the West Michigan Youth Employment Program as well as several other CTE programs in West Michigan.

The West Michigan Youth Employment Program – West Michigan Works. The West Michigan Youth Employment Program provides the opportunity for workforce development for first-time youth workers. Over 100+ at-risk youth between the ages of 16 and 24 engage in career exploration, employment skills training, mentoring, team building, community service, leadership skills development, DEI workshops, and other on-the-job training to better prepare them to successfully join the workforce.

Students engage in a variety of programming. They are placed with nonprofit organizations to learn basic employment skills and begin their career exploration during the summer months. This allows them to have hands on office experience while supporting local agencies in our community. Students are placed in certificate programs that match their career focus in the fall. The goal is to match youth in an internship/externship for more in-depth learning in demand jobs in the local community.

Last year in 2020, this program provided over 100 youth participants from Muskegon, Mecosta, Lake, Osceola, and Newaygo counties with work experience. Our Program Partner West Michigan Works! engaged 147 youth in braided services. 54 of the youth were specifically funded by a DTE Energy Foundation grant that supported summer/fall virtual job and career training. 19 youth were placed onsite with two nonprofit agencies, Boys and Girls Club and Community enCompass.

This program was limited do to COVID-19 concerns, but in 2019, 65 youth from Muskegon and Muskegon Heights were placed with 19 different nonprofits including health and human services organizations, youth-serving agencies, and local government. Their duties were varied, but included, helping mentor and tutor youth, beautify communities, assist people in need, manage businesses, provide office support and marketing. The curriculum included: financial literacy, first impressions, workplace skills, employer expectations, leadership/self-development and post-secondary planning.

All youth participated in various workshops including:

Soft Skills – Covering multiple key points to assist with receiving and keeping jobs. Key points that were covered – personal appearance, personal grooming, behavior, ability to express oneself, communication skills, technical skills, transferable skills, and personality traits. Also reviewed were: conflict resolution, confronting a team member, time management and balancing your work life and personal life. With a couple of examples in each section, they could tell the difference and why it was important to learn these skills.

Diversity Workshop – During this summer program, it is extremely important to understand diversity in order to establish teamwork. Topics covered were – Ethnicity, Age, Race, Gender, Physical abilities, and Sexual Identity.

Jobs for Michigan Graduates (JMG). 85 youth were enrolled in the Jobs for Michigan’s Graduates (JMG) program at Muskegon Heights Public Schools Academy in 2020. The JMG program is a one-hour class in the high school with an evidence-based curriculum that covers fundamentals of employability skills training, talent tours, competition, leadership development, and work experience. It addresses the 36 work-ready core competencies and is typically conducted as a two-year program. Youth from JMG are recruited following their first year in the program to be a part of the summer on-the-job basic training program listed earlier.

Thanks to DTE, this program doubled in size in 2020. The expansion of the program also engaged the youth to help them stay engaged in education and career exploration and aided them in completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA).

MiCareerQuest. In addition, middle and high school (6th through 12th grade) students through West Michigan will benefit from MiCareerQuest, representing 80+ schools in our seven county regions. The target population served by MiCareerQuest includes students not typically exposed to occupations within the skilled trades in the school setting.

A portion of these students will not attend traditional four-year colleges or universities, so it is important that they be exposed to alternate career pathways at an earlier age. Students will be exposed to over 229 careers, represented by over 100 local employers who will offer students a chance to learn about careers in West Michigan's high growth industries through conversation with professional and virtual activities in advanced manufacturing, construction, health sciences, and information technology.

Following the event, West Michigan Works! coordinate with the intermediate school districts in each of the seven counties to administer a survey to all students and all educators who were in attendance. Surveys capture both quantitative and qualitative information using yes/no questions in addition to open-text responses.

Survey analytics provide the following deliverables: gauge the event’s overall value, whether the event fills a current need within the schools, level of exhibit engagement, and level of career exposure and post-secondary career planning preparation provided to students. In addition, all exhibiting employer and volunteers are surveyed and we analyze those responses to make improvements to future events.

Survey results from MiCareerQuest 2019 showed that 99% of responding educators agreed that the event provided valuable career education to their students. Last year over 9000 students attended from the following counties: Kent: 5100, Ottawa: 1647, Muskegon: 1592, Allegan: 1011, Montcalm: 3886, Barry: 368, and Ionia:122.

United Way of the Lakeshore is uniting to inspire change and build thriving communities. Our Bold Goal – 10,000 more working families meet their basic needs by 2025. For more information, contact United Way of the Lakeshore at (231) 722-3134. Learn more about United Way of the Lakeshore at, like the organization on Facebook and receive up to date information from Twitter at

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Muskegon is locally owned and produced. Gary Scott Beatty, editor and publisher. Contents and design © Copyright Gary Scott Beatty, 1509 Princeton Rd., Muskegon, Michigan 49441.

Muskegon is an educational and informational service to help you make informed decisions. The content, tools and services of Muskegon are not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Privacy.