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Creating Opportunity: Connecting 5.5 Million Youth to Careers

By Erik Estrada on December 17, 2015

In our last blog series, we saw how our grantee partners are working together to disrupt inequity in New Orleans in order to create a more just city for its youth. We know that many of the challenges that affect opportunity youth in New Orleans—such as criminal justice system involvement and lack of good educational and employment opportunities—are the same issues keeping youth across the country out of work and school.

This population of young people is commonly referred to as disconnected youth or opportunity youth[1]. According to this year’s Opportunity Nation Index Report, opportunity youth make up 16 percent, or 5.5 million of the more than 38 million youth ages 16-24 in the U.S. To put that figure into perspective, there are more disconnected youth in our country than the entire population of Minnesota.

As the likelihood of these young people not being in school or working increases, “the cost of inaction is high.” In 2011, taxpayers shouldered more than $93 billion to compensate for lost taxes and direct costs to support young people disengaged from both education and work. The research suggests that over the lifetime of this group, the cost to society is estimated to be $4.7 trillion. (Belfield et al., 2012)

Some believe that one of the root causes of youth unemployment—which is more than double the national average—is a skills gap. Concerns about a widening skills gap has even brought together politicians from both sides of the aisle, such as former Congressmen Tom Harkin (D) and Tom Latham (R) of Iowa:

“America’s future is at risk if we are not able to build a workforce that can compete. Providing equal access to opportunity for all Americans is the defining issue of our time. Without opportunity, this country cannot thrive, cannot innovate and cannot survive.”

At Andrus Family Fund, we believe that when our youth do well, our communities are revitalized and we all benefit. We believe that not only is there a skills gap but also the well-being of our country’s youth is declining and the racial disparity of those negatively impacted by this gap is widening. Black and Hispanic children and youth continue to be overrepresented in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems and—even though both systems are meant to be temporary—they create long-term outcomes that negatively impact the ability of these young people to be productive in the workforce and economy. That is why supporting organizations that create opportunities for young people, specifically young people of color, is critical to realizing our mission. An example of this work can be found within the program model of grantee partner LeadersUp.

LeadersUp is responding to youth unemployment through direct partnerships with some of world’s biggest companies. They utilize a supply-chain engagement model that leverages companies within robust supply-chains across the United States to hire and retain Opportunity Youth as part of their workforce. Their employer-led initiative, The Future at Work, has launched several successful pilots programs in test markets across the country.

By creating a customized recruitment and retention strategy for employers that identifies the skills necessary to develop qualified applicants, LeadersUp is helping bridge the “talent divide”. The strategy behind The Future at Work pilots includes sourcing talent from local workforce development organizations that teach these young adults “power skills”[2] prior to interviewing with employer partners. The result is a sustainable millennial talent pipeline for businesses and access to real job opportunities for ready-to-work youth.

LeadersUp’s partnership with SK Food Group in Ohio led to the direct hire of more than 160 opportunity youth in 2014. One year later, more than 60 percent of those youth are still employed by the company. LeadersUp spearheaded employer pilots and city-wide youth hiring events in both Los Angeles and Chicago this year, that connected hundreds of youth to career pathways through public-private partnerships with Starbucks, the Los Angeles Workforce and Economic Development Department and the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative.

Access to job opportunities is just the beginning. LeadersUp is focused on ensuring businesses and communities are able to thrive from the contributions of a highly skilled, prepared and dedicated millennial talent pool. LeadersUp employer partners rise to the challenge of addressing the youth unemployment crisis by viewing it as a solution to their talent needs. They are interested in creating the workforce of the future and know that starts with the ingenuity and diversity of opportunity youth.

To see the impact of LeadersUp work in action, watch the videos below:

As we continue our career pathways blog series, we will see the power of collaboration amongst our grantee partners to build a more inclusive workforce.

[1] Nationally, this population of older youth are referred to as “Opportunity Youth,” a term that was coined by young people themselves who did not want to be viewed as disconnected but rather as confident young people who are looking to reconnect to school or work, build strong families and make a difference.

[2] LeadersUp refers to soft skills such as communication and problem solving as power skills.