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How to Connect Youth to Opportunity — and Give Them Real Skills, Too

Jason Green

Cofounder & VP for Business Development, SkillSmart

We’re in the midst of high school graduation season. This undoubtedly means you’re inundated with stories about which college your colleague’s child will attend next fall or what great job opportunity has postponed college for now.

I hear a lot of stories about these graduates. However, I don’t hear much about the high school graduates who won’t go to college or immediately enter the workforce. I hear even fewer about those students who, for one reason or another, won’t graduate at all. These students, out of school and the workplace – often called Opportunity Youth – deserve our attention and present both a social challenge and an economic opportunity.

The high number of Opportunity Youth — nearly 6.7 million — is one consequence of the Great Recession. Between 2008 and 2010, the economy shed nearly 8.4 million jobs. Although we’ve experienced steady job growth over the last five years, we’ve yet to see youth employment numbers rebound to pre-recession levels. Youth unemployment remains far above the national average. Young people today experience an unemployment rate far above the national average of 5.6 percent; teens aged 16-19 have an unemployment rate of almost 17 percent, and 20 to 24 year-olds have an unemployment rate of nearly 11 percent. This occurs partly because youth are often the least experienced in the workforce and partly because youth are increasingly ill equipped with the skills to navigate the workforce in the first place

This sobering trend has serious personal and societal economic implications. Research indicates that young adults who don’t get early work experience will likely sustain lower income levels throughout their lifetimes, falling short of their economic potential and contributing less to the economy as taxpayers. Each year, Opportunity Youth cost taxpayers roughly $93 billion in lost tax revenues and increased social services. Individually, this same population can cost taxpayers $704,020 over an individual’s lifetime, equating to an economic burden of $6.31 trillion.

Articles abound that highlight national policy efforts to increase the number of high school graduates that matriculate to college. We need to broaden our focus to include the current group of Opportunity Youth, recognize the importance of skills-building in a 21st century skills-based economy and resolve that it is possible to connect them to the workforce and ultimately offer them a pathway to economic empowerment.

The growing number of Opportunity Youth parallels the growth in unfilled positions, which still tops more than 5 million jobs. While youth report challenges in obtaining employment, employers similarly express difficulty in finding qualified candidates (54 percent say applicants are unqualified) and frustration with the costs associated with long-term vacancies.

Therein lies an incredible opportunity. This labor pool represents an available workforce that wants to connect with in-demand positions. Of course, we can’t simply place this talent pool into vacant positions; they likely lack the relevant skills to complete the jobs. First, we must help actually identify the skills that are needed, evaluate who has those skills and create pathways to skills development for those that don’t.

Middle-skill jobs, specifically, present a potential solution to both the skills gap and youth unemployment. In order to fill these positions, we need a better system of identifying and matching talent and developing flexible pathways into careers. With job-specific skills, young adults can fill positions needed today, serve as apprentices to gain additional on-the-job training, develop industry knowledge, and drive the future growth of the economy.

Improving opportunities and outcomes for our youth must start with employers; their success depends on more actively identifying which skills are needed for success and committed to investing in recruiting talent from nontraditional backgrounds. This means that employers need to be more transparent about the pre-requisites and skills necessary to perform a job and discontinue proxies that can limit and exclude skilled candidates.

Next, we must provide our young people a way to demonstrate the skills they’ve acquired. We spend too much time complaining about the skills young people don’t have. We don’t afford them the space to demonstrate the skills that they do possess and continue to master from their various activities – work, school, volunteering, sports, extracurriculars, etc. — and explore how skills, like effective communication or teamwork, developed outside of the workplace can translate into the workplace.

Being more transparent about what employers need gives our youth a rare opportunity to be consumers in an evolving skills marketplace. When they’re empowered with information about what they need to succeed in different occupations, they are able to select their career paths. They’re also able to hold themselves — and their institutions (whether four-year, two-year, or certificate program) — accountable for helping them develop the skills needed for employment success.

This idea of creating opportunity out of our youth, both for employers and young adults, is one of the reasons we created SkillSmart. We want to level the playing field for everyone in the workforce by giving them an idea of what skills they need to succeed and how they can acquire them. By working directly with employers, we understand and communicate exactly what they need in future employees and help provide the roadmap to those jobs.

It’s possible to connect our youth to the workforce — and keep them engaged — by advancing the process of how they become better qualified and more employable. A demand-driven approach that clearly defines the skills employers need and increases successful job matching ensures success for both employers and job seekers.

By doing so, we’ll create a new story about our youth and how they’re able to show their current skills, learn new skills, get quality jobs, contribute economically and reach their employment potential.

To read more about this topic, read SkillSmart’s white paper, “Ensuring Middle Skills Don’t Become Forgotten Skills.”

Jason Green

Cofounder & VP for Business Development, SkillSmart

Jason Green is an entrepreneur, lawyer, and political strategist that has spent his career empowering individuals and communities. Recently, he cofounded and serves as vice president for business development and general…