The link between youth employment and favorable outcomes later in life has been proven again and again.

College graduates who reported having an internship or job early in their careers, in which they applied what they were learning in the classroom, were two times more likely to be engaged at work ten years later.

Cohorts of young people with higher employment rates in adolescence experienced higher long-term employment and labor force participation rates in adulthood, as well as greater earnings.

A young person’s early career trajectory is clearly important for future well-being and, as data increasingly reveals, society at large.

How Does Youth Unemployment Stack Up?

In light of these findings, the recent rise in youth unemployment is worrying.

Relative to the national unemployment figure—which remained at 6.3 in May—the value for youth ages 16 to 19 and ages 20 to 24 has steadily increased over the past four years. In 2013, the unemployment rate for the nation’s youngest workers—at 22.3 percent— was over three times as large as the national average of 7.4 percent.

This gap not only necessitates increased policy attention from national, state, and local officials, but also reveals the need for a more comprehensive evaluation of what is being done to help young people enter the labor force and acquire stable, well-paying jobs.

Transitional Programs to the Rescue

Each year, taxpayers funnel billions of dollars into higher education and vocational programs that supposedly prepare youth for life in the workforce (frequently referred to as “transitional programs”).

In 2013, state and local governments spent almost $160 billion on postsecondary education, while federal expenditures reached $110 billion. Add to this the few billions of dollars these institutions spend on vocational education through the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act and similar legislation, and you end up with a system of postsecondary education and training that relies heavily, though not exclusively, upon the public sector.

Beyond traditional four-year colleges and universities, the largest national programs to help prepare youth for the workforce include Job Corps and Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG).

Job Corps is publicly funded and provides post-graduate career development, while the privately-funded JAG supports services including in-classroom adult mentoring, summer employment training, and placement services. In 2012, Job Corps enrolled just over 40,000 young people, while Jobs for America’s Graduates has assisted approximately 1 million graduates since its establishment in 1980.

Both programs, though unique in structure, provide young workers the opportunity to excel in fields that do not necessarily require a conventional post-secondary education.

Policy Without Data

These programs are crucial in an economy where expanding industries require high-level skills and an astonishing 1 in 7 young people are neither employed nor in school.

Yet today, there is inadequate information regarding which engagement strategies and programs are most effective and, thus, which methods can play a key role in incorporating youth into a stable labor market.

There are approximately twenty-five large, public programs and private organizations that ease the transition between school and work for young people on the national stage, including the three mentioned above.

Yet surprisingly, only eight of these institutions keep long-term data exceeding five years on employment and earnings figures for graduates. Only two programs—Career Academies and the Department of Labor’s Registered Apprenticeships—demonstrate consistently positive long-term results, such as increased earnings and employment levels.

While the majority of these organizations have not yet proven to be ineffective, the crux of the issue is that policy-makers do not have enough information to know how to monitor and improve these programs.

The result is dangerous: well-meaning, but unproven, social policy.

Increased Focus on the Youth 

There are social and economic reasons to support school-to-work training. More well-paid, employed Americans means fewer individuals dependent on government services, a larger tax base, a smaller incarcerated population, increased global competitiveness, and less pressure on health, education, and social services.

We cannot afford to put off this dilemma any longer. On average, each of the 5.8 million disconnected young people, neither working nor in school, costs the nation $13,900 per year in foregone tax revenue, $37,450 per year in supplementary social services, and, in the worst case scenario, $31,286 per year in prison fees.

With these realities in mind, we must rededicate ourselves to find out what works best for our young people with the goal to create a more productive, fulfilled national labor force. More than national, state, or local governments simply writing checks, this means undergoing a serious examination of current strategies for transitioning young people into the job market and evaluating long-term results.

We owe it to the next generation of Americans.