Why Should Local Governments Connect With Young People?

Why Should Local Governments Connect With Young People?


“Leadership doesn’t have to come from institutions. We need to build the bench. Commissions, neighborhood groups and community organizing is about youth development and leadership.” - Supervisor Don Saylor, County of Yolo

Why engaging youth matters

Local governments should have a vested interest in the development of young people in their community so that youth grow up to be engaged citizens. However, research shows that local agencies are failing many of our youth by not prioritizing these goals.

Young people, and in particular disconnected and opportunity youth, are typically:

  • Less engaged in civic life than their more advantaged peers,
  • Have little or no understanding of how local government works, and
  • Often have poor educational and employment outcomes.

For many young people, their interactions with government have been negative, or, at best, non-existent. Many youth cannot envision a future or their place within it. They face multiple barriers to getting and staying employed, such as the knowledge to apply for government jobs, resume and interview etiquette, or even ability to purchase business attire. In addition, many have little to no access to adult mentors and role models and few opportunities to develop basic work habits and employability skills, including those related to communication, managing and meeting expectations, and effective use of technology.

Young people are the potential future workforce for local governments. However, most youth lack the knowledge of what cities, counties or special districts do and the possible careers they offer. Harnessing the energy of youth who want to engage civically or consider careers as municipal workers should be a pressing concern for decision-makers and staff focused on the future of their agencies and their communities at large. 

Fill the workforce pipeline and build the workforce of the future

Municipal government faces a critical workforce decline as the COVID-19 pandemic and the Great Resignation continue while retirements accelerate.

California local government and public sector workforce is also rapidly changing. Per the 2019 Sacramento Region Innovative Pathways to Public Service, Workforce Needs Assessment Report: 

  • 24% of employees in the public sector are eligible to retire in the next decade
  • 10% of California’s public sector jobs are in local government

Furthermore, the current workforce often does not represent the diversity of the communities it serves, thus creating mistrust, especially among those living in vulnerable and under-resourced communities. Government recruitment and hiring practices can be perceived as long, tedious, bureaucratic and drawn out, leaving young people that are ready-to-work and in need of financial stability looking elsewhere – or not looking at all.

Develop a more engaged and informed community of residents

Civic engagement is critical for the health of our democracy and a highly effective strategy to prepare young people for college and career. Research has demonstrated that civic engagement through service learning improves academic achievement like test performance, grades, school attendance and engagement, assignment completion, and general sense of educational accomplishment. Teens and young adults who volunteer, across all races and socioeconomic levels, are more likely to be connected to school and work than their peers who do not volunteer.

Teaching youth to advocate for social justice and policy and program changes can be a powerful way to engage disconnected youth. As a result, youth gain confidence, agency and efficacy. 

Civic engagement can help low-income youth envision a future, build social capital and find meaningful educational and career pathways while enhancing a region’s economic resilience. According to the National Center for College & Career Transitions, work-based learning and career education has been shown to be effective strategies to improve student graduation rates, school attendance, behavior, persistence, and longer-term earnings and college attendance rates.

Local government agencies can play a critical role in the development of youth by closing opportunity gaps for our most disconnected youth, helping them become connected to their communities and developing important skills in preparation for college, work and life.

Improve competitiveness through regional economic development

Creating intentional pathways for disconnected youth from high school to college to public sector careers can be a strategy for inclusive economic development. Attracting and retaining employees begins with engaging young people, and it means systemically changing the way local government operates.

Engaging with youth, and in particular more youth of color and disconnected youth, can ensure that future staff and decision-makers are better equipped to be civic leaders and prepared for work in the public sector. By engaging in youth development strategies there is potential for long term impact on the financial and civic health and security of neighborhoods and the improved life outcomes for disconnected young people.