Onboarding Young Workers in a Post-Pandemic World

Reyna Orellana & Donald Tomaskovic-Devey  |  May 4, 2022

Labor shortages are widespread, workers are expecting higher starting wages, and after employers hire and train a new employee the risk that they will jump ship for a better paying job is probably the highest it has ever been. The cost of hiring the wrong candidate has never been higher. 

How can employers do a better job at hiring and retention? We talked with workforce development professionals –people who help employers find workers and young adults find jobs– to document what employers can do to make good hires, ones that last. In this report we focus on what they see as working and what tends to fail when onboarding new young employees. Our goal is to help employers examine their hiring and onboarding practices, increase the speed at which new hires become productive team members, and reduce the high financial and emotional cost of turnover from failed hires.

In this environment of short-staffing and difficulty finding new employees, some firms are raising wages, offering more full-time positions, redesigning jobs to include better benefits, and offering signing bonuses. These are important, but so are more subtle aspects of onboarding, especially those having to do with developing mutual respect and trust between the employer and the new hire. Both employers and employees need hiring to be done right. 

In this study we share ten lessons to help employers hire right. The workforce specialists learned these lessons observing the typical mistakes employers make, sometimes over and over again. 

  1. Create career jobs that offer living wages, sufficient hours, skill and wage progressions, and most importantly respectful relationships with supervisors and co-workers.
  2. Communicate opportunities for career progression to help new hires recognize the difference between short-term, dead-end jobs and jobs leading to long-term careers.
  3. Build positive relationships prior to hiring through practices like job shadowing, workplace tours, and mock interviews.
  4. Successful onboarding requires a positive first day reception; introductions to co-workers, supervisors and the boss are vitally important.
  5. Assign new hires a mentor to help them learn both expected job skills and the informal culture of the workplace. 
  6. Communicate job and workplace cultural expectations clearly and with justification.
  7. Create a trusting environment where potential employees can ask questions and solve problems.
  8. To build relationships and reduce turnover, employers need to understand the lives of young workers.
  9. Foster a workplace climate of respect and dignity for everyone. 
  10. Create a racially equitable and inclusive workplace. 

The workforce specialists we spoke with are eager to help employers solve problems around communication, on-boarding and chilly racial climates. They are a local, motivated resource that employers may have overlooked in the past. They know a lot about what works and what does not in hiring young workers and are eager to help employers do better. 


Our Approach

Most studies begin from either the employer's or job seeker’s perspective. Both points of view are partial and potentially blind to the other’s experiences. We take a different approach by relying on the observations of workforce specialists, professionals who match young job seekers and employers. Workforce specialists routinely observe the problems young workers face in the labor market, as well as the mistakes employers make when hiring and onboarding new workers. Many primarily work with young workers of color and have learned how employers can create better opportunities for them to land good jobs with career paths. Since they are the primary labor force of the future, employers will need to get better at incorporating them into their workplaces. 

This research is based on focus group interviews with workforce development professionals in Seattle, Hartford, Indianapolis, and Cleveland. The lessons we provide are not city dependent, but rather reflect common mistakes and opportunities employers encounter in hiring young workers across the country. 

Multiple emails and phone calls prior to the focus groups built familiarity and trust with the participants. A follow-up survey was done shortly after the sessions to better understand the themes that emerged. Three main themes that came up in the focus groups and were addressed in the subsequent survey: placement and retention, employer practices, and discrimination.  The survey received a 75% response rate from the initial focus group participants. Respondents averaged 7 years’ experience doing this work, were deeply committed to creating good job matches for employers and were both thoughtful and knowledgeable about what works around hiring young employees.

In this report, tables list lessons from workforce specialists, listed in order of importance based on the survey responses. Boxed quotes from the interviews and the surveys are included to illustrate these lessons. 


The Role of Workforce Specialists 

Workforce specialists[1] work to match employers and young workers. Most work for organizations that provide occupational training, job search coaching, and post-placement mentorship. Their organizations are deeply involved in occupation-specific training for young workers to help meet the needs of employers looking for ready-to-work candidates for a broad range of jobs, while preparing workers for long-term skill development. They know the intricacies and challenges of both sides and are keen observers of what works and what fails when hiring young employees.

Workforce specialists tend to have strong relationships with local employers. We see them as experts in understanding the complexities of what it takes to hire right, avoid the costs of excessive turnover, and grow a skilled workforce. They also have had experiences engaging with young job seekers who have encountered both explicit and subtle racism, highlighting the need to tackle the forms of racism that are more subtle and harder to see. They understand that simple diversity in hiring is not enough; the workplace climate matters for successful job matches.    


Hiring In a Post-Covid World

The pandemic revealed just how important entry-level workers are to their communities. Many of these workers were in jobs deemed essential to keep the economy running and as a society we asked them to face infection risks while others worked from home.[2] Additionally, labor market entrants in essential jobs are increasingly young people of color, and the calls for racial justice are ringing loud and clear. Increasingly, employers find themselves on the frontline of movements demanding racial justice, and we find that successful onboarding of new hires requires attending to issues of respect across racial lines. 

Even before the pandemic propelled the bargaining power of new labor market entrants, employers paid a high price for failed hires. In addition to the training and onboarding costs, there is the lost productivity from empty positions and the considerable time and frustration invested in recruiting and interviewing new workers. One estimate is that the total cost of replacing an entry-level employee can be as much as one-third of their yearly earnings – $10,000 for a $15 an hour job.[3] If a firm is always hiring due to high employee turnover, the costs, both financial and emotional, are quite high for both employer and employee. 

Workers increasingly expect to have opportunities to grow, to earn a livable wage and to be treated with respect and dignity in the workplace. In addition to that, employers are most successful at hiring when they also communicate well, are fair, and directly address racial biases. Rising expectations for the quality of jobs, while clearly linked to labor shortages associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, are probably here to stay, as the population of both young workers and immigrants shrink.[4]

Often unrecognized is that early job experiences have lasting career consequences for new labor market entrants and their communities. Youth unemployment and turnover have long-term impacts on both earnings and the transition to adult roles.[5] When young people in a community cannot find good jobs the whole community suffers through lower lifetime wages, out-migration of young workers, poorer outcomes for their children, and more social disorganization in neighborhoods.[6] These transitions can be particularly difficult for young people of color, so learning to hire right promotes racial justice, not just in workplaces but in the communities around them.[7] Good jobs and good employers strengthen communities as well as the local economy.


Helping Employers Make Successful Hires 

This report focuses on young workers, primarily ages 18 to 29. Most workforce specialists work with this age group and strive to match job seekers to employers that will value their emerging skill set and provide developmental career opportunities. Workforce specialists emphasized that employers should work to develop joint expectations for long-term relationships since this might be the first time young workers experience a job with career opportunities. These “career jobs” pay a living wage with sufficient hours and have the potential for workers to expand skills and earn more.  Providing career jobs reduces turnover, but the most important way to reduce turnover are effective communications and respectful relationships with supervisors and co-workers.[8]

Workforce specialists understand what young workers need to do to learn to get a good job and stick with it. These include habits of good attendance, completing skill training prior to hire, willingness to learn new skills on the job. Workforce specialists pointed to the crucial role of supervisors’ communication skills as problems or questions arise for new workers. They also observed that young workers who feel disrespected are much more likely to quit, even when there are career prospects and a good starting wage. When both parties are committed to the employment relationship, careers are nurtured, and two-way respect emerges.[9] 

Additionally, job seekers want to see people like themselves in the workplace environment. If they do not feel comfortable, they will most likely not last or not accept an offer in the first place. This is particularly important for retaining young people of color. Starting wages are important, but it’s the entire package of benefits, opportunities and conditions that make a job a good fit and reduces the probability that a young worker will leave for a slightly better wage.  
The workforce specialists referred often to  the need for strong communication between employer and employee. Employers often fail to understand young workers’ lives. At the same time, job seekers aspire to create mutually respectful relationships and work environments. Many young people, they stressed, need to learn workplace expectations around such things as being on time and company safety policies. First-time workers often need to learn the basic skills of navigating the workplace.  Employers must recognize this and clearly explain their expectations . If instead, supervisors become frustrated and reprimand new employees for not knowing the rules, higher turnover follows.


Connecting Before the Application Process 

Hiring first-time workers can be a daunting task, but employers can employ a variety of strategies for managing relationships with job seekers entering their workforce. One approach is to provide opportunities for the jobseeker to interact with the employer prior to any interviews. Building relationships with workers even before they formally apply for jobs builds mutual familiarity and trust and reduces turnover.[10]

Successful employers encourage job seekers to visit their facilities and experience first-hand what the company is doing and how it works. These types of opportunities can allow job seekers to envision themselves in that workplace and ease the fear that they will not fit in.

Job shadowing, allowing job seekers to follow a worker and ask questions about the position and the workplace, was identified as a highly effective pre-placement practice. Workplace tours, where potential candidates are given access to the facility and can observe a typical workday, are helpful as well. Lastly, mock interviews were recognized as beneficial for applicants to learn what to expect in a real interview. Mock interviews also shine a positive light on employers.


Challenges with Virtual Interviews 

The COVID-19 pandemic created new hiring challenges. Many employers switched to virtual interviews and no doubt some will continue this practice. It’s important for employers to realize that many young workers did not have ready access to the internet or a computer to take part in interviews. For many the best they have is a smart phone, which is far from ideal for an interview. For most being stuck at home with other family members, makes it difficult to have a professional atmosphere for the interview. Many workforce specialists stepped in rose to the challenge by providing computers so that job seekers could attend virtual interviews in a professional space. In the virtual world employers have to adapt their expectations of the interview process to match the limits of job candidate's lives. Virtual interviews, of course, loose the opportunity to connect more generally before the interview process and so must be carefully evaluated. 


Successfully Recruiting Workers of Color

Past research shows that employers have successfully used multiple strategies to recruit and retain workers of color. One of the most effective tactics is using referrals from current employees to find new hires. Referrals are more likely to accept an offer and stay with the firm and are often more productive.[11] Referrals also reduce the time invested in recruiting new employees. Being referred by a current employee means the new hire already has a “buddy” at work, helping them learn the ropes faster and providing them with support in the new environment. Other strategies include:

  • Keep track of all applicants and referrals and contact them when a position opens up. 

  • Make sure all new hires have a mentor and get skill training, which reduces turnover among all employees. This is particularly effective for young workers of color who often are overlooked or even ignored by older supervisors until they “prove” themselves. 

  • Create a trusting environment where potential candidates can engage with staff and ask questions to see if it is a good fit. 

Employers often put an emphasis on a “good personality,” but what young employees really need to develop are adult interactional skills such as asking direct questions and giving direct answers. The specialists observed that even when job seekers were qualified for the job, some employers would reject them because they did not make direct eye contact during an interview or the first few days on the job.What workforce specialists have seen is that employers interpret this as disrespect, rather than a signal of deference and insecurity. Employers instead must prioritize the qualifications and skills that job seekers have, understand cultural and age differences in how applicants present themselves, and respect differences in the workplace. 

Workforce specialists advise employers to review everything a candidate brings and not base decisions on how they perceive the candidate’s personality. For example, a candidate can have great math skills and the required certifications and training for the position, but during an interview, their shyness or fear might come off as unfriendly, and they are rejected for the job.  


Successful Onboarding

New employees should be welcomed with the expectation they will be around for a long time. Young people can be particularly insecure in a new job, often unsure of their responsibilities and skills.  Addressing this challenge by making young workers feel welcomed, respected and comfortable is crucial. 

The biggest mistake employers make is being unprepared and surprised when a new employee shows up for their first day of work. It is a clear warning signal to the new hire that they do not matter and leaves young workers insecure and potentially resentful. A positive reception and introductions to co-workers, supervisors and the boss are vitally important. First impressions matter, and employers should treat them as crucial to a lasting relationship.

Key steps include expecting and welcoming new employees, introducing them to co-workers, going over the employee handbook, reviewing expectations – as well as explaining the reasons behind those expectations. These need not happen all at once, but they do need to happen. 

One workforce specialist recounted how a young worker went to the worksite for their first day on the job, but nobody was expecting them, due to a miscommunication between the hiring team and the supervisor. Not only was this a wasted opportunity for a proper onboarding process but also a bad experience for the young worker, who took away a sense of not being welcomed and that the company was poorly managed. 

Workforce specialists emphasize that the onboarding practices often make or break a job match. Expecting and welcoming new employees requires setting out to create a space that encourages young workers to feel they are part of the team. 


Mentoring and Support

Workforce specialists stress the advantages of creating a workplace that will mentor and support young workers in their careers. Cultivating relationships with employees, at multiple levels, including the human resources team, hiring managers, supervisors, and workplace mentors, is a proven strategy.[12]  Workforce specialists emphasized how building relationships during the hiring process creates respectful and inclusive job matches. Building those strong relationships can facilitate frank racial conversations as well.


Encouraging Questions

Young employees can be overwhelmed in a new job and may be slow to  meet expectations, which can spark a manager’s irritation. One way to address this is to encourage young hires to ask questions and seek help. This recognizes the complexity that comes with learning workplace etiquette and the insecurities young workers bring to work. 

Another common mistake employers make is expecting new employees to understand workplace expectations. Clear explanations, not only about job tasks, but about the formal and informal rules and expectations on the job are key to successful onboarding but are often overlooked in the rush to get people working. New workers also need to know why those rules are there. Telling a new young worker that they should “just do it” can stoke resentment, which can fuel turnover.

A common example is cell phone policy. Many workplaces ban cell phones, or cell phone use, during work. This can be a reasonable safety or workflow requirement. But for a new young worker, the cell phone is a vital tool in their life outside work. A no-cell-phone policy that isn’t clearly explained will seem to many young hires as unreasonable, arbitrary, and a signal of mistrust by the employer.  A reasonable accommodation, such as providing a secure locker to store personal items, may be a simple fix. If workers feel their belongings, especially cell phones, are safe they will be more willing to store them while on the job. 

Employees should be encouraged to ask questions around rules and practices. In one example cited by a workforce specialist, one worker, although they wanted to follow the rules, asked if they could have their cell phone with them in case of an emergency call regarding their children. In this case, the workforce specialist, thanks to a strong relationship with the employer, advocated to give parents  access to their phones. There were other suggestions as well, such as teaching employees the norm of shutting off phones on the job, leaving them in a secure place, checking emails and messages during break or lunch only, and, in some workplaces, showing why and how a cell phone might pose a danger.

The Critical Role of Communication

Our workforce specialists reported that an unsuccessful placement will typically end in less than a month. An employer may chalk the cause up to chronic lateness, a poor attitude, or resistance to instruction. From the young worker’s point of view, these can be symptoms of the employer’s failure to understand where they are coming from. 

Placements can fail due to simple misunderstandings about each other’s needs and expectations. Unavoidable employee constraints around childcare, mass transit delays, doctor appointments, and school requirements may produce late arrivals or even not showing up for work, sometimes without explanation. What looks like bad attitudes and slow learning may be the simple product of young workers' insecurities and not communicating their need for help. 

At the most abstract level we have learned that to produce lasting job matches employers need to better understand the conditions of their new employees’ lives. The specialists suggested employers check in on their workers’ children and issues such as transportation barriers; open the door to conversations about workers’ encounters with racism; and discuss their new hires’ sense of belonging in the workplace. The tendency to expect employees to rapidly adjust to the workplace, without regard to the realities of their lives is a recipe for turnover.


Creating an Inclusive Workplace

Workforce specialists noted that a lack of women and people of color on the shop floor and in supervisory roles often led job seekers to decide a workplace would not be a good fit for them. Similarly, when training videos were all populated by white men, women and people of color suspected they were not welcome. Inattention to inclusivity harmed businesses, generating resentment and turnover. Simple diversity in hiring is not enough. Climate matters for successful job matches. 

Job seekers expect to see themselves in the workplace environment, if they do not feel comfortable then they will most likely not last or not pursue the job in the first place. 

Employers must tackle this issue directly, as the young people entering the U.S. labor market are increasingly Black or Hispanic or immigrants. They want to work, but they also fear discrimination. Employers often have difficulty acknowledging problems related to race and racism in their workplaces. Part of this stems from the legal climate, which makes employers shy away from admissions that might carry legal risk. More broadly, there is a general cultural avoidance of frank conversations about race.

Workforce specialists suggest that employers can make some assumptions about new hires who come from communities of color. First, they will have encountered racism before they arrived in a workplace.  Second, they want this job to succeed and have taken a chance that their new workplace provides a welcoming environment.  

Workforce specialists stressed that employers need to take responsibility for any racism in their workplace. Employers who recognize racism and discrimination must actively ensure that they create an environment that is supportive and inclusive for all employees or risk losing great employees.

Challenges around employer biases based on race and ethnicity, as well as other intersecting identities, are a stubbornly persistent workplace problem. Employers must pay attention to such things as:

  • Pay discrepancies by gender and race.

  • Who is working the “best” shifts – e.g., who works in the front of a restaurant and who works in the back.

  • Building stable and respectful relationships between supervisors, co-workers and new employees from all backgrounds.

Employers must take seriously the multiple ways that racism can affect their workers’ ability to succeed in the job. Explicitly racist talk continues to be tolerated in many workplaces.[13] It is not, however, as simple as noisy bigots, but racism has all the complexity of any managerial problem -  it includes resources, staffing, communication, and trust, in the context of personal histories and expectations.
One surprising finding from the research was that both workforce specialists and jobseekers believe that employers use zip codes on job applications to stereotype and discriminate against applicants of color.  Whether or not that is true, an employer’s requirement in an application can set off alarm bells among job seekers of color. 

The story of zip code bias reflects a perception that employer bias against people of color and their neighborhoods is widespread, but also highlights the degree to which when an employer hires a young worker of color their firm is also being evaluated as potentially discriminatory. Young workers need a paycheck and want a career but are often suspicious that the next employer will turn out to be as disrespectful as the last. Employers should acknowledge the impact of racism in the larger society and in their workplace. 

Talking with a new hire about perceptions and experiences of discrimination is important  but often difficult. A young worker is more likely to just quit when confronting racism at work than they are to complain. Since many firms respond to discrimination claims with denial, often followed by retaliation and firing, it is not surprising that employees might decide that quitting is easier than discussing their experiences.[14] Learning to talk frankly about race is a crucial managerial skill that must be developed by employers. If an employer finds their workers of color are less likely to work out, they should consider whether workplace conditions are the issue. 

Of course, sometimes employee perception of discrimination seems to a supervisor as a misperception. This is often the case, when the supervisor tends to have harsh interactional style toward all new workers.[15] Employees of color, who have already experienced discrimination before coming to work and have been warned to expect discrimination, are likely to make sense of a supervisor who is an equal opportunity bully as simply another racist boss. The legacy of past racist encounters on the job or in the streets, lives on in the fears of young hires. Employers who ignore the racial reality of their employees' lives risk increased turnover and tense workplaces. Of course, keeping equal opportunity bullies on the job will increase turnover among all employees.[16]  Employers need to foster a workplace climate of respect and dignity for everyone. 

A productive way to think about the initial few weeks after a new hire is as a probationary period for both the employee and employer. Both are anxious to develop a long-term productive relationship, but while employers are curious as to whether the employee will adapt to the rhythms and expectations of the workplace, new hires are gauging whether this workplace will be respectful and free of racism.  



This report was prepared to support the efforts of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Generation Work project, which aims to connect more of America’s young adults — especially young people of color from low-income families — with meaningful employment by changing the way public and private systems prepare them for jobs. During the first phase of the initiative, Generation Work and partners in five cities — Cleveland, Hartford, Indianapolis, Philadelphia and Seattle — worked to align education, employment and support services to help young people develop the skills required to succeed in the working world; link them with employers; and increase advancement and earning opportunities. These efforts have focused on weaving together best practices from the adult education and training field — in particular, a focus on demand-driven workforce development strategies — with positive youth development practices, such as mentoring and work-based learning. As Generation Work continues to evolve, other local partnerships will be added to better prepare young people in more parts of the country for career success.

Additional support to the Center for Employment Equity comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. We thank Laura Burgher, Clare Hammonds, Ranita Jain, Tom Juravich, Alexandra Kalev, Jasmine Kerrissey, David Pedulla, Ofer Sharone, J.D. Swerzenski, and Tom Waldron for crucial suggestions and insights.  

Special thanks to the workforce specialists who shared their insights with us.



1 Workforce specialists have a wide range of occupational titles -- employment service manager, work experience specialist, career navigator, employment coordinator, labor broker, staffing specialist, career coach, employment coach, as well as workforce development specialist. We asked in our survey which job description was most accurate. The title that was chosen the most was workforce specialists, for this reason we refer to all our participants as such.

2 Clare Hammonds, Jasmine Kerrissey & Donald Tomaskovic-Devey. Stressed, Unsafe, and Insecure: Essential Workers Need A New, New Deal. Center for Employment Equity and UMass Labor Center, University of Massachusetts. June, 2020.

Work Institute, 2017 Employee Retention Report, https://workinstitute.com/retention-report/

Stella U. Ogunwole, Megan A. Rabe, Andrew W. Roberts, And Zoe Caplan. Population Under Age 18 Declined Last Decade. August 2021. https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2021/08/united-states-adult-popul...

Pedulla, David S. "To be young and unemployed." New Labor Forum, vol. 21, no. 3, pp. 26-36. 

Strazdins, Lyndall, Megan Shipley, Mark Clements, Léan V. Obrien, and Dorothy H. Broom. "Job quality and inequality: Parents’ jobs and children’s emotional and behavioural difficulties." Social Science & Medicine 70, no. 12 (2010): 2052-2060.

Osterman, Paul, and Beth Shulman. Good Jobs America. Russell Sage Foundation, 2011.

This observation mirrors what social scientists have been observing for decades. See for example, Roscigno, Vincent J., Jill E. Yavorsky, and Natasha Quadlin. "Gendered Dignity at Work." American Journal of Sociology 127, no. 2 (2021): 562-620 or Hodson, Randy. Dignity at work. Cambridge University Press, 2001.

This recipe is remarkably similar to those offered by experts focused on successful career building for new labor market entrants, see Ranita Jain and Amy Blair. 2021. Promoting Equity and Inclusion and Connection to Good Fit Jobs for Young Adults Typology of Workforce Development Practices to Influence Employer Practice Change. The Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program.

10 Jo, Jinhwan, and Jill E. Ellingson. "Social relationships and turnover: A multidisciplinary review and integration." Group & Organization Management 44, no. 2 (2019): 247-287.

11 Dobbin, Frank and Alexandra Kalev. A Change is Gonna Come: Fighting Systemic Bias at Work, Harvard University Press.

12 Ranita Jain and Amy Blair Promoting Equity and Inclusion and Connection to Good Fit Jobs for Young Adults. June 2021

13 Roscigno, Vincent J. The face of discrimination: How race and gender impact work and home lives. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007.

14 Donald Tomaskovic-Devey and Carly McCann. Who Files Discrimination Charges, Center for Employment Equity. August 2021.

15 Einarsen, Ståle Valvatne, Helge Hoel, Dieter Zapf, and Cary L. Cooper, eds. Bullying and harassment in the workplace: Theory, research and practice. CRC Press, 2020.

16 Coetzee, Melinde, and Jeannette van Dyk. "Workplace bullying and turnover intention: Exploring work engagement as a potential mediator." Psychological reports 121, no. 2 (2018): 375-392.