Skills and training

Building Evidence on Occupational Identity Could Lead to New Approaches for Improving Labor Market Outcomes for Young People

Maalik Nickerson September 02, 2021

Young workers have faced a disproportionate share of employment challenges during the COVID-19 recession and aftermath. Millions of teens and young adults from marginalized communities are struggling to find their footing in the labor market, risking long-term scarring on their well-being, prospects for employment, and economic mobility. Many others also may be disconnected from school.

At the height of the pandemic, the unemployment rate among 16-to-24-year-olds was more than double that of the adult population, reflecting a high concentration of teens and young adults in retail and hospitality, sectors shut down by stay-at-home orders. Patterns of inequality have persisted during the recovery phase as well: the July jobs report shows Black teens experienced a sharp uptick in unemployment—9.3 percent in June to 13.3 percent in July—compared with other demographic groups, whose unemployment rates are slowly trending downward.

We need new evidence-based approaches to improve young workers’ labor market experiences and outcomes. One underexplored area for research and practice could be interventions aimed at influencing occupational identity, or how a person envisions their future selves in the workforce, informed by what their preferences are, what they believe they are skilled at, and where they feel they belong. How young people see their future working selves potentially shapes a multitude of decisions about their work, education, and careers.

Occupational identity and the factors that influence it are underresearched topics and potentially underutilized mechanisms for helping young people explore careers, build social capital, and strengthen social networks, all of which could lead to better labor market outcomes.

Building blocks and barriers to occupational identity

A recent research review from the Connected Learning Alliance provides a useful framework for understanding how adolescents form their occupational identity and the factors that foster and impede its growth. Researchers note that adolescence is a critical opportunity to connect emerging occupational identities and aspirations with academic and career pathways. Their framework starts with three essential building blocks of occupational identity: self-concept, self-efficacy, and belonging.

  • Self-concept refers to how young people think about their abilities and the specific vocational pathways on which they see themselves, based on views they construct about the real world. Their exposure to specific occupations through role models, popular media, or educational content can influence how young people assign value to a career or vocation and whether they identify with it. Such exposure may also counter harmful stereotypes—associations between specific careers and racial, gender, or class identities—that can hamper occupational identity development and career exploration. 
  • Self-efficacy is a young person’s sense of their capacity to successfully execute tasks, and it deepens when people attach value to specific tasks and develop skills to master them. Self-efficacy may be fueled by a “growth mindset,” in which people believe their skills and knowledge are not static and can develop over time. Implicit biases from teachers and employers that convey doubt or discouragement can limit a young person of color’s ability to excel and their sense of self-efficacy. Dismantling such biases, providing culturally competent curriculum, and having young people engage in activities to build skills, such as hands-on and project-based learning, can foster experiences of success, which then improves young people’s self-efficacy.
  • Finally, belonging describes a person’s experience of fitting into a community with shared interests or practices. Participating in communities of practice and being recognized by other members as legitimate participants can affirm a young person’s sense of belonging. It can also help them build social capital—the relationships that allow them to learn about careers, seek mentorship, and obtain employment. However, most people, including young people, tend to gravitate toward those with similar identities, which can limit connections to those outside of familiar networks. Structural and historical forces of segregation, discrimination, and stratification can also contribute young people feeling excluded from certain careers or spaces. Affinity-based mentorships where young people are paired with peers and professionals with similar cultural backgrounds could disrupt these barriers to belonging.

Measuring how specific interventions influence occupational identity

Connected Learning Alliance researchers also reviewed evidence on specific programs and interventions that can influence how teens and young adults form their occupational identity. One challenge for this research is that most programs don’t measure it explicitly or test whether it is affected by interventions, focusing instead on whether participants acquire specific skills or knowledge. To build an evidence base on how occupational identity affects young people’s decisionmaking and labor market outcomes, we need to better study and measure how young people’s development of an occupational identity contributes to program success.

Although pinning down hard evidence on the impact of specific programs on occupational identity formation remains elusive, researchers point to several promising interventions: 

  • programs that offer high-engagement opportunities to marginalized young people through mentorship, job training, and job placement support
  • apprenticeships and other hands-on learning in specific careers and vocations
  • programs that take advantage of both formal and informal settings for learning about occupations and career pathways
  • greater investment in volunteerism, civic action, and other asset-based approaches that emphasize youth agency
  • targeted approaches to social capital development, such as youth-initiated mentoring (PDF), where young people choose adults in their own networks to serve as mentors—a strategy for developing high-value social supports for youth of color

Testing and building evidence on programs that allow teens and young adults to gain exposure to occupational role models, build skills, form a sense of self-efficacy, and join communities of practice could help them navigate and thrive in today’s labor market.

Learn more:

Influences on Occupational Identity in Adolescence: A Review of Research and Programs (Connected Learning Alliance)

Striving to Thriving: Youth Occupational Identity Formation (Equitable Futures)