The COVID-19 pandemic has had a dramatic impact on the employment of young Americans. Even as the United States economy made up for lost ground last year, youth employment rates — especially among young Black and Latinx people — have lagged far behind that of older workers.

In December, the unemployment rate of workers 20 to 24 years old was twice that of their older peers. For those young workers who are fortunate enough to have found employment, they are too often laboring in low-wage jobs in food service, retail and other similar industries. Nearly half of the 1.7 million fast-food and counter workers in this country are younger than 25, and they earn a median hourly wage of just $11.47. Underpaid and burned out, young workers are now quitting their jobs in record numbers.

Young workers need a path forward to obtain better careers with more sustainable wages. Fortunately, the very same skills young workers gain and hone in lower-wage jobs are crucial foundational competencies for higher-paying roles. According to a report from Burning Glass, one in three skills requested in job postings is a baseline skill. Though the exact skills needed depend on the particular industry, such skills are in high demand even in the most technical career areas. In fields like information technology (IT), health care, and engineering, more than one-quarter of all skill requirements listed in job openings are for baseline skills.

Build Upon Transferable Skills to Get Ahead

The baseline skills common in jobs typical among young workers can serve as a strong foundation for quickly building a career. With the right kind of support, these competencies can be transferred and transformed. Employers and talent managers must help young workers build on their existing skills so they can leapfrog from low-wage work to higher-paying jobs that can advance their careers.

Designing career pathways that focus on transferable skills rather than long periods of traditional education or training can help remove barriers to advancement and topple hurdles that lock too many young people out of early-career opportunities. Take, for example, a retail salesperson employed at an hourly wage of $13. To do this job well, a person must already have or must quickly develop several key skills, including customer service, active listening and social perception.

As it turns out, those same skills are also prerequisites for a successful career in higher-paying industries, such as IT, in which their workers earn nearly twice as much per hour as a salesperson. And it doesn’t have to stop there. Once this same young person has gained experience in an entry-level career, they can further advance by building on their existing skills sets by gaining additional specialized skills through short-term training programs.

It’s on employers and talent developers to help young people develop a deeper understanding of how the skills they put to use every day in their entry-level or early-career job can translate to higher-paying employment. They must provide their workers with transparent, identifiable career pathways toward advancement. Lower-wage employees desire opportunities for growth and career development, but the road toward advancement is not always an obvious one.

Employers should make it obvious. Companies can start by informing young workers which skills — both baseline and specialized — should be mastered and expanded upon, as well as how those skills can translate to more stable, better-paying careers within an organization. Employers should also ensure workers actually have access to opportunities to foster these skills, either through on-the-job training, work-based learning or tuition assistance.

Baseline skills are non-specialized competencies that cut across a broad range of careers and industries. These skills include communication, problem-solving, detail orientation and creativity, as well as basic computer literacy, which according to the report, increasingly represents a minimum qualification for even low-wage jobs. Many employees will come to an organization already possessing most or even all of these skills. Some will develop them as they settle into their entry-level role, while others may need additional training. In any case, young workers should know what skills are expected from them and how they can be further developed and sharpened.

Meanwhile, specialized skills are those competencies specific to a particular occupation or industry. Think technical support, customer service, allied health care and treatment planning for licensed practical and vocational nurses. It should be clear which specialized skills an employee will need to grow in their current role and advance. These skills can be gained through experience, higher education or training. With succession planning, entry-level workers can see a specific roadmap to how these skills can lead to a well-paying career.

Partner With the Community

To design the kinds of pathways that help young workers access better career opportunities, employers will need to partner with community organizations and training providers. For many young adults facing barriers in the labor market, community organizations are the front door for career development. A well-connected community organization can offer a variety of services that provide workers with the resources they need to thrive in their early careers, including access to training programs, child care and transportation assistance. These organizations can also allow employers to reach deeper into communities they may have little experience engaging, allowing companies to pull from a far more diverse pipeline of young talent.

Local colleges, workforce programs and other organizations focused on education and skills development are also valuable partners that can assist employees in developing the specialized skills that can enhance and complement baseline skills, thus opening the door for upward mobility. Such partnerships must not simply be transactional, but will require employers to openly discuss their goals, needs and resources. Transparency and true collaboration are key.

Employers will also need help from policymakers. Tens of millions of young people are underemployed, not working or not looking for work. Employers and training providers cannot solve this massive challenge alone. Long-overdue changes in the world of public policy — from expanding work-based learning opportunities to increasing investments with learning and development (L&D) initiatives targeted at millennials and Gen Zs — are necessary for connecting young adults to programs that can help them develop the foundational and technical skills they need to begin and advance in their careers.

Moving Forward

Even as the economy continues its slow recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, young workers are being left behind. Employers who rely on the front-line work of their youngest employees have a responsibility to acknowledge the important skills these workers bring to the table and provide them with clear pathways to build on those skills and chart a path toward higher wages.

We must ensure entry-level work is truly that: an entry point that serves as a first — and short — step toward sustainable careers and economic stability.