Q&A with Mark Melnik, Ph.D. of UMass Donahue Institute Regarding Youth Employment in Massachusetts

Dr. Melnik will keynote the Commonwealth Workforce Coalition’s 13th Annual Sharing Skills ~ Building Connections Conference on May 17th

The Commonwealth Workforce Coalition, a community development program managed by the Community Economic Development Assistance Corporation (CEDAC), will hold its annual Sharing Skills ~ Building Connections conference at the Sturbridge Host Hotel and Conference Center on May 17th.  Mark Melnik, Ph.D., the Director of the Economic and Public Policy Research (EPPR) group at the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute (UMDI), is keynoting the conference, which brings together workforce development professionals from across the state to share knowledge and skills.  We asked Dr. Melnik for his insights into youth employment in the Commonwealth, which is the topic he’ll be highlighting at the conference.

1. Tell us about the UMass Donahue Institute and the work you do?

UMass Donahue Institute (UMDI) is a civic engagement and think tank based out of the UMass President’s Office.  UMDI is a client-focused provider of a broad array of consulting services, including: Applied Research, Training, Organizational Development, Management Support, Technical Assistance, Educational Programming, International Exchange Programming, Workforce & Business Services.

My group is the Economic and Public Policy Research (EPPR) group.  We conduct all manner of demographic, economic, and public policy research for clients in Massachusetts, New England, and beyond.  We specialize in industry sector studies, economic impact analyses, economic, demographic and workforce issues, and public policy advisement.  We typically work with state and local governments as well as non-profit and private sector clients.  In addition, our group is the home of the State Data Center.  We are the official liaison to the U.S. Census Bureau for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  In that role, our group is charged with providing expertise in all of the Census data products  and training and disseminating that information to our affiliates around Massachusetts.  Our group also produces MassBenchmarks, the journal of the Massachusetts economy published in cooperation with the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston

 2. You’re Speaking at the Commonwealth Workforce Coalition’s 13th Annual Sharing Skills ~ Building Connections Conference on May 17th. Can you give us a preview of what you’ll be presenting?

We are currently working on a study, funded by the Boston Private Industry Council (Boston PIC) examining the youth labor market (16-24) in Massachusetts.  I will be presenting some preliminary findings of that work.  In particular, I will be discussing how youth labor market participation has dropped in the U.S. and in Massachusetts dramatically over the last 35 years and some of the reasons why this is an important economic issue. I will then talk about the current youth labor market in Massachusetts and segment how employment and labor force participation looks different for various demographic groups in the state, including racial and ethnic groups, gender, nativity, and social class.  In general, we see some stark differences in employment for young adults based on race and socioeconomic status.

3. You are focusing on youth employment in Massachusetts. From a big picture perspective, what are the biggest challenges facing youth employment?  Opportunities?

Youth employment rates are down overall throughout the country.  There are a couple of factors related to this:

1.  Young people are more likely to go to college now than at points in the past, which delays them from entering the labor market.

2. When there is slack in the labor market (like time of recession), younger workers are competing with more experienced workers for entry level positions. In that, employers are showing some reluctance in hiring young, inexperienced workers.

This can be problematic because there are a host of long-range benefits to early engagement in the labor market for young people, including the acquisition of important soft and technical skills, as well as the creation of employment networks.  Engagement in the labor market is lower for racial minorities and less affluent young people in general.

In terms of opportunities—-with Baby Boomers approaching retirement ages, it will be important for public policymakers to continue to consider how to replace the potential loss in labor supply.  One natural way is through increase labor force participation in groups not already participating at high levels.  Young adults are one such example.

4. The Sharing Skills ~ Building Connections Conference brings together workforce development professionals from across Massachusetts. Do you have recommendations for how those agencies can address the challenges of youth employment?

I think one clear opportunity is for agencies to forge relationship with employers to create meaningful opportunities for young people.  There are several examples of such programs now, including the work the Boston PIC is doing in partnership with State Street Corporation, in connecting young people directly with opportunities over the summer.  This is one way to create a pathway for young people in to acquiring meaningful experience.  If organizations can forge those relationships, it can reduce the trouble young people have in competing with older, more experienced workers as well.

5. Any other thoughts to share regarding workforce development initiatives in Massachusetts?

MA is a well-educated state and there is a type of “credential markup” that happens here.  In that, employers tend to hire people with college degrees for jobs that don’t necessarily require that level of education.  In so doing, they effectively raise the requirement for position.  With that, programs and public policymakers need to think about what are the true “middle-skill” jobs in MA (those jobs that actually require middle-skill training and hire those people accordingly) as opposed to those jobs that are being credentialed up.  Conversely, job training professionals need to advocate for their clients that employers shouldn’t hire someone with a BA for positions just because they can.  This, again, requires some level of relationship building between training program and employers.


Over the past several years, the conference has brought together more than 300 participants, exhibitors and presenters from across the Commonwealth to network and enhance the tools that front line staff use to help job-seeking men and women.  Among workforce professionals in Massachusetts, the Sharing Skills ~ Building Connections conference is renowned for providing a wide array of workshops on current topics relevant to the field.  This year, among the 30 workshops are:

  • P2 – Behavioral Interviewing: Preparing Your Job Seeker for Success.
  • E4 – Workplace as Learning Place: Connecting Students and Employers to Create Learning
  • Opportunities
  • M3 – Measuring the Business Impact of Workforce Training Programs

Additionally, CWC is pleased to welcome Jennifer James, Director of the Workforce Skills Cabinet, Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, who will share perspectives on career pathways development in Massachusetts and the new opportunities it affords for partnerships between community-based organizations and the public workforce development system.

For more information on the Sharing Skills ~ Building Connections, please visit the conference Webpage at http://cwc.cedac.org/2016Conference.html