The Opportunity Movement

Devoted to closing the Opportunity Divide

Category Archives: Opportunity Divide

To Create Jobs, Create a Skilled Workforce

This week I had the opportunity to share my thoughts with Big Ideas for Jobs, a research project promoting practical, sustainable, and scalable job creation ideas. Here’s what I had to say; you can also read the original post on the Big Ideas for Jobs website.

Each year, millions of jobs are created for workers with the right skills to fill them. These jobs are permanent, family-sustaining and unlikely to be outsourced. While it’s important to talk about “creating” new jobs within our nation, it’s also crucial that we fill the ones that already exist. The skills that these jobs require will be in-demand by employers long after any short-term job-creation program comes to a halt.

Even amidst high unemployment, our economy is suffering from an increasing shortage of skilled workers. 30 percent of all U.S. employers had vacancies that remained open for at least six months in 2011, despite an unemployment rate that exceeded 9 percent. To simply stop the skills gap from growing wider, we will need to produce 22 million new workers with post-secondary credentials – not necessarily a four-year degree, but some sort of training beyond high school – by 2018. At the present rate of growth, we will fall short of that number by at least three million.

It’s little wonder why: America’s one-year certificate programs (on average) graduate less than one third of their students within two years. The consequences of the divide between our students and our employers are dire. More than 6.7 million young people in this country are out of school and out of work, and together they will cost our economy more than $437 billion over the next five years, further straining our budget deficits and diverting money from other investments that promote growth in our economy.

We as a country can do something about this. Some of the most innovative community colleges and workforce training programs in the market today work closely with local employers to identify current and future positions of need. They then use their resources to offer targeted training to help prepare students for immediately available jobs.

This is what we do at my organization, Year Up. Each year we train over one thousand eager young people from the wrong side of what we call the “Opportunity Divide,” and then introduce them to businesses with jobs to fill. Our outcomes are not only impressive, but proven: More than 84 percent of our graduates are employed or in college full-time within four months of graduation, and those working earn an average wage of $15/hour ($30,000/year for salaried employees). Aside from helping U.S. companies grow, these young adults become experienced, valuable professionals. And our students’ success is contagious; not only do they become new role models and sources of inspiration to their peers, but local businesses can benefit directly from the increased purchasing power they bring back to their neighborhoods.

Just imagine the impact we could have by bringing our young people and our businesses together on a larger scale. They could power the economy for decades to come, and create millions of quality jobs in the process.

Rather than merely seeking to create new, low-skilled jobs, we need to create a sustainable education and workforce training system that prepares young people to fill the high-quality jobs that are being created every day. That’s not a partisan idea – it’s what our businesses and our young people need.

Leading a legacy of change: Reflecting on the first Year Up Alumni Summit

Shanique Davis

Today’s update comes from Shanique Davis, a member of Year Up’s National Board and a Year Up National Capital Region alumna.  Shanique, along with National Board Member and Year Up Boston alumnus Greg Walton, led the organization of our first ever Year Up Alumni Summit, which took place in Washington, DC last week.

Last week, my colleague Greg Walton and I hosted 150 Year Up Alumni from across the U.S. at our very first Year Up Alumni Summit. Centered on “Leading a Legacy of Change, we hoped to build a rapport between alumni in different cities; to show that, as alumni, we can be even more of an asset to not only Year Up, but the world; and to share our knowledge and eagerness to pay forward the opportunities we’ve had while continuing to establish ourselves as young professionals. It was truly a sight to see, and the impact on those of us in attendance was even bigger than what we could have ever expected.

Throughout the events – an inspirational dinner with Daniel Beatty, dinner discussions reflecting on ourselves before and after Year Up, and several sessions focused on how we alumni are serving our communities and how we can continue to progress professionally – the connections we made were phenomenal.  I instantly felt like I was among family, just as I did at Year Up National Capital Region when I was going through the program.  It was deeply powerful and inspiring to meet so many other people with experiences similar to mine – and who shared the same passionate desire to lead change in our communities.

Year Up Alumni Summit

Our main purpose was to lead by example and show what “Leading a Legacy of Change” looked like in reality. A few alumni who attended, thinking they weren’t doing enough to make a difference, did not realize how much they have done so far and are continuing to do. We learned that we even have some who have started their own programs, such as MentorCorps, a mentoring program in Boston lead by alumnus Kern Williams. Talk about leading a legacy – this is definitely evidence of true alumni strength! Alumnus Ky Smith of Baltimore summed it up best when he told us: We are economic assets to our country.

I quote Michelangelo in saying, “The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim was too high and we missed it, but that it was too low and we reached it.” It sometimes takes moments like these for us to realize anything is possible when we put our minds to it.

Shanique and Greg with Gerald Chertavian, Founder and CEO of Year Up  Alumni Summit 2

This Alumni Summit showed us that we are a family, with the same purpose in life: to be a better person, change the way society looks at us as a whole, and set that foundation for a better future for our kids. In moving forward from this event and its knowledge, I know that more alumni will continue to lead their own legacy of change and share what they experienced here with others, so that we can impact even more young adults. With the unveiling of our new site, we are now able not just to tell, but to show how we are doing this. We can do more, and we can make our voices heard and our actions seen when advancing opportunity.

For alumni, whether or not you attended the summit, please get involved. Reach out to your fellow graduates and continue to be a part of this movement that is bigger than us all. We can make tomorrow a whole new day of change, and a step toward our future. As Ky said, we are economic assets to our country, and we have the power to change it.

We are very grateful to Microsoft and Southwest Airlines for making this gathering possible.


Searching for answers

I have listened to the 911 calls, read everything there is to read, watched the news, signed a petition on, and listened to our President speak on the matter. I still shake my head.  Trayvon Martin should not have died that day.

I was still reeling from the news of his killing, trying to make sense of something so distressing, when amidst my emails there was one from Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon’s parents.  It was a painful and emotional email to read; one that I could never imagine writing about one of my own children.  But yet they wrote it.  It requested that I sign a petition calling for George Zimmerman’s prosecution and trial – a petition which has already gathered more than two million signatures.

I listened to Trayvon’s mother speak this morning at a Congressional hearing, and she said something that moved me deeply: “Trayvon was our son, but he was your son too.” Trayvon’s tragic death demands an explanation, and demands to be explored. Those responsible need to be brought to justice.  The explanations and the explorations, though, are not limited to the man who confessed to the killing.  They extend to the media, who waited for weeks before focusing on the story.  They extend to the Sanford police department, whose handling of this case appears questionable.  They extend to us – the general public – who have to look within to begin to understand how this could have happened.  Trayvon’s death represents so much of what we already know – and don’t want to admit – about the society within which we live.

I am deeply saddened by Trayvon’s death and my heart is heavy as I think about his family.  Yet I am hopeful that justice will prevail, and that the public sentiment that this tragedy has ignited will somehow move us forward in a positive direction.  Our urban young adults are assets – not liabilities – to our society and economy, and the need for more Americans to realize this is all too evident in this tragedy. I am proud to work in an organization that strives to be part of the solution and know that our efforts pay tribute to the many individuals who have paid a tremendous price striving for increased justice, equity and opportunity for all.

1+1=1.2 Trillion

For years, Year Up has understood that the return on its investment in young adults was not purely measured by the incremental income that our graduates are able to earn and the taxes they will pay.  Surely, the avoidance of negative costs (social welfare, prisons, lost productivity, etc.) is also something we should include in answering the question, “What is the value of Year Up?”  However, much as we tried, we were not able to obtain accurate and convincing data to quantify the savings to society by enabling a “disconnected” young adult to gain access to a livable wage job and a post-secondary education.  We did not want to cite “soft” data that could be questioned, ultimately weakening the proof of our model.  We were content to rest purely on the external causality study conducted by Economic Mobility Corporation, which concluded that Year Up raises the wages of those who go through the program by 30% compared to control group.

Imagine the smiles across our faces at Year Up when we read the article in the Atlantic about the cost of jobless youth to taxpayers.  I almost ripped the cover page of the magazine trying to find the article in question.  The numbers are eye-popping!  Each jobless youth costs taxpayers $14,000 per year, costing us more than $437 billion over the next five years and $1.2 trillion over their lifetime.  Have a read through the article and the data – the claims are justifiable and coherent, and the implications are massive. In a time when we have to get our economy back on track and reduce the debt burden that exists in our nation, we can save ourselves half a trillion dollars, AND do something to reduce economic inequality. Sound too good to be true?  It isn’t.

The fact is that we will pay for rising numbers of disconnected young adults in our nation whether we like it or not.  The only question is how you want to invest your money. You can do it on the front end by providing people with access, opportunity and support to realize their potential and enable them to become taxpayers and productive citizens; or on the back end in lost taxes and productivity, higher social welfare costs and higher costs for the criminal justice system. The choice is ours to make, and it is a real choice.

David Brooks talks about this choice in his recent article about Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart, and ends by correctly encouraging the top 20% to spend some more time with the bottom 30%. Brooks is encouraging us to look ahead and to recognize that the current path down which we are going hurts our long-term economy, increases our level of inequality and reduces mobility.  Ultimately, it poses a threat to our civil society, and tears at the very fabric of our democracy.

The good news is that we can do better – putting our youth to work is better for our democracy and better for our economy.  One and one can equal three, and in this case it might just equal a trillion!

United We Stand, Opportunity Divided We Fall

Dominique Jones

There are many inspiring leaders of the Opportunity Movement, and I look forward to introducing more of them on this blog.  Today’s update comes from Dominique Jones, a recent graduate of the Year Up program.  Dominique graduated from Year Up Bay Area on Thursday and now works as a contractor for  Here’s what she has to say.

I was born in Oakland, California, a city with a rich history of both beauty and violence. Young people are often used as scapegoats for the crime-ridden parts of Oakland, while their potential goes unnoticed. Here, to the naked eye, a young man is only a hoodlum in a black hoodie, sagging jeans, and sneakers. He is a miscreant, unwilling to do his part to become an effective member of society. Who are these young men who decorate corners, breaking glass to match their broken spirits? They are the Opportunity Divide manifested in human beings.

What social elements created such a large group of talented young people who are so far from attaining the vision that they see for their lives? To me we are divided by the absence of three things: Empathy, Expectation, and Excellence.

In Oakland 2011, the murder rate rose for the first time in four years, the last three murders of the year being children under the age of five. This is a statistic, turned expectation that if left unattended, will become a scarier “E” word: epidemic. A lot of people expect Oakland to be violent, its inhabitants taking on its character. No one wants their city to have this reputation or to have the expectation of aggression tied to them because of their origins. It takes a certain awareness to be able to empathize with this. Subtly, armed with the tools of professionalism, young people refuse to leave this statistic unattended.

Year Up is a program that understands the social elements that create an environment for potential to be stifled and suffocated. Instead of giving young people a handout, Year Up asks us if we are willing to expect more out of our lives and helps us transform that expectation into excellence. The expectation of punctuality is transformed into the ability to be consistent. The expectation of professional language is transformed into the ability to speak and write eloquently. All that was needed was space and opportunity to allow our light to emerge from the dark places where we are told we aren’t enough and never will be.

My experience has been one where I was told that I was extremely gifted by teachers and counselors, but never offered advanced courses in high school. I had to seek them out. In college, I thrived academically and struggled financially, eventually having to drop out. I’ve always read voraciously, navigating the world as a student for life, but the doors to a bright future were always guarded by a looming figure of rejection that held me behind a red rope or red tape, depending on how you look at it. It may have been simple institutional bureaucracy or lack of expectation for a young, intelligent person from an urban background to thrive among students with different experiences. Either way, I could never get my name on the exclusive, four-year college guest list. I tried Year Up. It has worked for me. I’ve been able to sharpen my skills, earn an amazing internship at, and prove that I can thrive in what Forbes called “the world’s most innovative company.” Me. Dominique. From Oakland.

Now ask yourself: what social element is created when such a large group of talented young people return to their neighborhoods, changed? That is an epidemic that I can stand behind.

Jobs and Freedom

On August 28th, 1963, two years before I was born, Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  Dr. King’s call for racial equality was delivered to over 200,000 supporters during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  It was a defining moment in the American Civil Rights Movement, and considered the top American speech of the 20th century.   Yesterday we celebrated Dr. King’s birthday and we continue to reflect on the ideals for which he so fervently stood. 

1963: In front of 170 W 130 St., March on Washington, [l to r] Bayard Rustin, Deputy Director, Cleveland Robinson, Chairman of Administrative Committee

1963: In front of 170 W 130 St., March on Washington

As I reflected on the importance of today’s date, I could not help but ask what Dr. King would think as he surveyed the progress we have made over the past fifty years and the challenges that lie ahead.  At the time of Dr. King’s death, the civil rights movement was increasingly focused on issues of economic justice, and indeed the March on Washington was for jobs and freedom.  Imagine what Dr. King would think if he could read Don Peck’s recent article in the Atlantic on the “thinning of the middle class.”  In 1963, our nation had already begun to move away from manufacturing and towards a service/knowledge based economy.  The effects of this shift, including its impact on the middle class, were not yet apparent then.  Over the past five decades, these effects have become very clear, and they should be deeply concerning to all.

The global economy increasingly values higher levels of skill and knowledge.  If you can acquire those skills and knowledge, you have a much better shot at earning a decent wage and claiming a spot in America’s middle class.  If you can’t the odds are increasingly against you.  It is shocking to read that high school graduates without a college degree compare more closely to high school drop-outs (in terms of many cultural factors) than to those with a college degree.  A few short decades ago, the opposite was true.  Peck quotes from a national study of the American family by the sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox: “The family lives of today’s moderately educated Americans,” which in the 1970s closely resembled those of college graduates, now “increasingly resemble those of high-school dropouts, too often burdened by financial stress, partner conflict, single parenting, and troubled children.”

The most important thing we can do for our nation is to ensure that all of our citizens gain the skills and knowledge that are increasingly being rewarded in our global society.  Ensuring this is not a matter of figuring out the solution; we broadly know what the solution is.  It is not about creating an entitlement society.  It is not about vilifying the 1%.  At its core it is about preserving and promoting economic mobility for all. The need is as great now as it has ever been to broaden the educational opportunities to which every citizen has access, and to reverse the economic trends that have persisted since Dr. King made his famous speech.  Indeed, if Dr. King could survey the field as we see it today, I am sure he would feel compelled to take pen in hand and start drafting.  I, for one, would be grateful to listen.


Lessons From Across the Pond

The general perception about the events in London over these past few days is that they have been perpetrated by a group of uncivilized, amoral thugs who occupy the lawless underbelly of English society.  Normally reserved British politicians have expressed outrage at this criminal element, claiming the moral high ground from which judgment is so easily passed.  The police have cracked down with equal and opposite ferocity (click here and have a look).

It seems that we are easily falling into a simple explanation for the whole thing – good versus evil, moral versus immoral, right versus wrong.

However, is it really that simple? What should we be hearing from this “call” across the pond?

No rational person can condone what we are seeing, nor justify the riots as an appropriate response of those on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder (which often takes the form of a mass of marginalized urban youth).   However, we are missing the point if we cut our thinking short, and don’t ask why this is happening, and what led to it.

It’s no surprise to anyone that inequality has widened significantly over the past thirty years, our public education system is under-performing, and we are facing the highest levels of youth unemployment since the Great Depression.  Couple that with an economy that is demanding higher and higher levels of skill, and you have the perfect storm for marginalizing huge swathes of our young people.  And, sorry folks, but given the current state of public investment in discretionary programs, it is hard to project that this will get better before it gets worse.

So… what are we to do?

Peggy Noonan made the bold assertion in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend that “the problem, at bottom, is love”, or rather, the lack of it.  I don’t disagree with Peggy at all, although her cure is too abstract.  To me, the problem, at bottom, is about opportunity: opportunity to gain a good education, to pursue a job that pays livable wages, and to take proper care of yourself and your family.

Here is my suggestion:  Let’s create a new agency – part public, part private, part non-profit-  and call it the “Opportunity Agency”.  Anyone can participate by being an “Opportunity Provider”.  There are countless ways to do this – read to a three year-old, mentor a child, tutor a student, help someone learn to speak English, donate time to a homeless shelter, assist someone with getting financial aid, provide someone a job shadow experience or internship, hire someone who has been incarcerated, etc, etc.

The goal is simple – to provide people with more opportunity.  We could measure this pretty easily, and track the results.  To make this work, two things are required:  First, people have to believe that each of us – regardless of zip code, race, income level or education – deserves opportunity. Second, we have to believe that given the chance, the vast majority of people will take honest and sincere advantage of this program.

Bottom line: people are good, they want to do good things, and given the chance, they will.

Imagine a “flash mob” that comes together only to provide opportunity for others.  Now that’s a flash mob I like!

Food For Thought

Last week, Year Up held a wonderful event at the home of Pam and Alan Trefler…not a fundraiser, more of a consciousness-raiser. The topic of discussion: How does food inequality relate to the Opportunity Divide?

First of all, what do we mean by “food inequality”? At a basic level, go to any inner city and try to buy a fresh vegetable. It’s tough to do. Or, price a gallon of milk at the local convenience store – it’s much more expensive than at Costco (which is a drive away and requires a car to access). Or, just ponder the fact that one out of every four children in America is currently on food stamps. It’s shocking.

How might this type of inequality relate to the opportunities to which one has access? The answer has to do with systems, and how they relate to and impact one another. By “systems” we mean housing, food, legal access, education, healthcare, and criminal justice; the systems we exist in as citizens, but often do not choose. We are placed in certain systems primarily because of our zip codes and socioeconomic status.

Here is a flow of logic to consider: if I am often hungry but do not eat nutritious food on a regular basis, it will be harder for me to focus and study at school. It is also likely that over time my health will be negatively impacted by this, which – if I don’t have access to regular medical care – may mean I miss school more frequently. The combination of these factors may cause my grades and education to suffer. Therefore, I may not do well on high-stakes tests (for instance, the SATs) which often dictate the expectations people have for me after high school. That is, if I even manage to graduate.

The food system, the educational system, and the healthcare system are all inter-related. At times, they can create a vicious vortex that even the persistent may find daunting to overcome. It is the very interdependence of these systems, especially in areas of concentrated poverty, which makes them so pernicious.

I don’t think we solved any problems last week as we pondered these questions, but the topic was very good “food for thought.”

Something to Sink Your Teeth Into

I have believed for some time now that rising income inequality poses a long-term threat to our civil society and indeed our democracy.

This is not the most popular view to espouse at dinner parties and can be seen by some as unpatriotic and scaremongering; it doesn’t get a laugh or leave people with inspired visions of a utopian society. From our often inward-looking national perspective, it can be hard to see how the 2005 riots in France or the recent protests in North Africa and the Middle East could ever become reality here in the USA. All were in large part catalyzed by sky-high youth unemployment and a lack of opportunity to climb the economic and social ladder. As Timothy Noah illustrates in his well-written 10 part series, income inequality is only problematic when you combine it with a lack of social mobility.

While I would never sell our country short, it is hard to deny that trends in America are heading in the wrong direction. As Noah explains, income inequality has risen steadily over the last 40 years to the point where “income distribution in the United States is more unequal than in Guyana, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and roughly on par with Uruguay, Argentina, and Ecuador.”

Similarly, the Brookings Institution / Pew Economic Mobility Project, “Is the American Dream Alive and Well?“, concluded that “children born into a low-income household in the United Kingdom, France, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Canada, and Germany have a better chance of improving their economic situation than those born in the United States.”

Trends often catch us by surprise; it is hard to predict when there will be a backlash, a dot com bubble burst, or a housing crash. But the fact remains that current trends are heading in the wrong direction if one takes history as any useful guide to the future. How we reverse these trends – and who is responsible for reversing them – is a longer discussion. For now, it is worth noting that we are not so far removed from the international news reports we have been watching. If we continue on our current course, we too may reach a breaking point; it may not fall within the timeframe of any one administration, and is likely to be something our children will have to address rather than us. Sorry to be the harbinger of bad news, and I hope the food still tastes OK.

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