It was either as a data entry and filing clerk where my mother worked in insurance or a cashier at our local grocery store. Neither were all that fulfilling or memorable.

But I do remember experimenting with how quickly I could type in the numbers with each insurance claim to help pass the time. And what I remember from being a cashier was getting as many hours as possible to increase my wages, and the stress from ensuring my cash drawer lined up with the receipts. Anything outside of that is a blur. 

These two jobs would introduce me to the world of work, but it was not my life’s work.

In an ideal world, a first job is a chance to earn money and gain skills that are transferable to a second job, a third job, and onward to a fulfilling career. For educated and connected young people, navigating this path is fairly straightforward. For others, including myself, it is more involved, but it is still achievable with determination and support from caring adults.

But for those without a safety net, the path forward is uncertain, fraught with the risk of missteps along the way.

This was true before the COVID-19 crisis, and the pandemic has only further exacerbated the inequities and injustices at the root of our country’s decline in upward mobility.

As we seek to build it back better, it is critical to understand the educational and economic challenges young people face, so we can create a future where everyone is supported in their journey to cultivate and utilize their talents that lead to a rewarding career.

Though I did not know this when I was filling out my college applications, education is not a guarantee of a good job after college though those making the investment would like to believe it to be so. Each year, 1.2 million low-income and first-generation students go to college, and only one in four emerge with well-paying jobs with growth potential. Still, some form of postsecondary experience is better than none.

For young people with limited education, who often lack social capital and experience, securing a full-time job that offers good pay is even more challenging. According to a report released by Burning Glass Technologies, nearly half of young workers aged 16 to 24 not in school, without college degrees, and lacking work experience, were unsuccessful in progressing to better-paying jobs within five years.

This is troubling, obviously. But the promising news is that means that roughly half of young people are successful in progressing to better-paying jobs. What can we learn about their success that would allow us to create the context for more young people to succeed? How many successfully completed some form of postsecondary training? How did they begin to develop a social network that would help them build on that first job? Which employers invested in their success? Which employers evaluated their recruitment and hiring practices to give these young people a fair shake? 

There are more questions than answers, but to build it back better, these are the questions we should be asking, ones that are broader than which skills and education a young person needs to get the next job. Each of us has a role to play in helping our young people reach higher heights—both by giving them the tools they need to succeed but also by removing the systemic barriers that prevent them from being successful. 

We know this is possible, and we know no one of us can solve this alone. Together, working across sectors, we can reimagine and create a future where all young people can thrive.

Tyra A. Mariani is the president of the Schultz Family Foundation.

For #BuildItBackBetter, NationSwell asked some of our nation’s most celebrated purpose-driven leaders how they’d build a society that is more equitable and resilient than the one we had before COVID-19. We have compiled and lightly edited their answers.
Presented in partnership with the Schultz Family Foundation.