The Opportunity Divide: A Path to Economic Prosperity for Our Nation’s Disconnected Youth
In 1987, I was just beginning my career on Wall Street when I met David, my “little brother” through Big Brothers Big Sisters. David lived in a public housing development on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a neighborhood known at that time for crime and drug use.
For three years, I visited David every Saturday, and I soon came to admire my mentee as one of the most intelligent and motivated young men I’d ever met. However, I also realized that his opportunities could be limited by his zip code, the color of his skin, the balance of his mother’s bank account, and the school he attended.
It struck me that human capital was being wasted at a time when we had none to spare. More than 20 years later, unleashing that untapped potential has become imperative to our nation’s ability to prosper in the 21st century.
Today, U.S. companies are on the brink of an unprecedented shortage of skilled employees able to meet the demands of an increasingly competitive, global, and knowledge-based economy. By 2018, an estimated 64 percent of all jobs will require at least some postsecondary education or training, and yet the U.S. continues to lag far behind other countries in educational attainment. In the next decade, employers are predicted to face a gap of 14 million college-educated workers, and current evidence shows that our public secondary education system is consistently under-delivering career-ready graduates.
There are currently over five million “disconnected” young adults who are out of work and out of school, lacking the resources to embark on a viable career path—and that number is on the rise.
These are troubling realities, but they represent a significant national opportunity. On one side of the “opportunity divide” are urban young adults looking for opportunities to succeed. On the other side are employers seeking skilled employees to fill jobs.
To help close this gap, I founded Year Up to address the needs of both sides simultaneously. Our program empowers urban young adults with the skills needed in a 21st century economy while building employers’ confidence and investment in these talented individuals and their potential to propel our future economic prosperity.
More specifically, Year Up offers an intensive one year program for 18-24 year olds, who have a high school diploma or a GED, but are otherwise disconnected from the economic mainstream. Our students undergo six months of intensive skills training while receiving college credit. This is followed by a six-month internship with one of our corporate partners—primarily Fortune 500 enterprises. Since our founding in 2000, we have expanded to nine cities across the country and served over 5,000 students total. We currently serve more than 1,300 students per year.
Through this success, we believe our model provides three key lessons for shrinking the opportunity divide in this country.
First, the foundation of the model is the combination of high expectations and high support. High expectations encourage young adults to challenge themselves and take responsibility for their work while also preparing them for corporate America’s rigorous standards.
Yet students also face tremendous challenges outside of the program—many are single parents, don’t have insurance, or lack stable housing. Year Up’s high support system, which includes advisors and on-site social workers, helps students overcome these obstacles and succeed.
Second, Year Up’s model focuses on aligning our teaching with the needs of a dynamic economy. The reality is that the American economy needs young adults trained for 21st century careers in growing, knowledge-based industries, such as information technology or financial operations. We adapt our technical skills curriculum to these needs to ensure our students fill the right gaps in the labor force.
Our program also places equal emphasis on learning the “soft” skills needed to succeed as professionals. Knowing how to communicate effectively, take initiative, think critically, and give and receive feedback are crucial components of a 21st century skill set and can make or break a student’s long-term success.
Third, there needs to be a focus on adding value to employer stakeholders while helping students. This means taking the time to carefully cultivate and develop employer relationships, identifying their concerns and their needs.
It also means highlighting the strategic benefits of supporting these students, instead of appealing for charity. By offering a “low risk, high reward” talent solution, companies gain access to a reliable, local source of potential employees whom they can observe and help train without an obligation to hire.
There are young adults craving opportunities to succeed and businesses demanding more highly skilled talent to compete on the world stage. Empowering young adults with the skills, resources, support, and knowledge to power the U.S. economy addresses both of these needs and revives our country’s most valued ideals.
Gerald Chertavian is the founder and CEO of Year Up.
This commentary originally appeared on Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity. It is reprinted here with permission.