The Opportunity Movement

Devoted to closing the Opportunity Divide

Tag Archives: unemployment

With a window of opportunity, what country do we want to build?

Now that the election is over, we have an opportunity to come together as a country on an idea that is distinctly not political: getting Americans back to work.  Above all else, I’m feeling optimistic that now, we can do it.

Part of my optimism stems from seeing the 80 CEOs who recently came together to urge Washington to do what is necessary to avoid the fiscal cliff.  What’s to stop a similar group of business leaders from coming together to support solving another national crisis: the growing Opportunity Divide in this country?

Part of it is timing.  Across the country, we are moving closer to broad recognition that growing inequality of income and, more importantly, of wealth, hurts everyone.  The growing skills gap hurts our economy and demands an effort to rethink our approach to preparing young people to enter the workforce.  At the same time, online courses like MOOCs are transforming higher education from the university model to an aggregate model, which has the potential to truly democratize education by making it affordable for all.  Though the transition is just beginning and will surely involve some speed bumps, that’s something that no one has been able to do up to this point. 

We have an opportunity to make sure that our practices and policies do not divide us into two Americas – one America where opportunity abounds and another one where it is nonexistent.

The only question is, what is the country that we want to build? 

I am hopeful that we’ll build a country that sees the potential inherent in all of our young people, not just the ones born in the right zip codes or with the right amount of money in their parents’ bank accounts. 

Imagine how things could be different if all young adults had affordable access to higher education after completing high school, and if hiring managers recognized their potential and the credentials from their online courses as legitimate preparation for entry-level jobs that would help them build careers.  We know what young people can accomplish with that kind of opportunity, along with the right support, because we see them do it every day at Year Up, and it could power our economy and our country.

I’m thankful to work in an organization full of individuals who are fueled by the success and passion of these young people.  I’m hopeful that, with this window of opportunity, we will build a country that sees their potential and makes sure they have the opportunity to realize it.

16% vs 84%

The numbers are shocking.  A study highlighted in the New York Times this week revealed that only 16% of recent high school graduates not enrolled in college are working full-time.  An additional 22% are working part-time (often because they can’t find full-time work) and most believed they would be unable to get good jobs without further education, inaccessible for many.

Where does that leave us?  It leaves us with an unforgivably high percentage of young adults who lack a path to economic self-sufficiency, and whose talent is going to waste.  And with such low odds for this generation of young people, the message to the next generation is clear: if you don’t plan – or can’t afford – to go to college after high school, don’t expect much for yourself.

This wasted potential seems especially frustrating when you consider how avoidable it is.  There are many jobs in this country that do not require four-year college degrees, and many that require them even though they are unnecessary.  With some additional training, through a vocational program or through an employer, many of these young adults could not only fill those jobs, but excel in them.

Take, as an example, Samantha Lewis, a graduate of Year Up Bay Area.  Before she started the program, Samantha, a 22-year-old high school graduate with no college degree, was unemployed and homeless.  Her talent and hard work during the program ultimately earned her a permanent position at Wells Fargo – a position for which her supervisor had previously been seeking a candidate with a college degree and 10 years of experience. 

Compare the 16% in the New York Times with the 84% of Year Up graduates (also high school graduates without college degrees) employed or attending college full-time within 4 months of completing the program.  The second number should show you that these young adults have the talent and motivation to succeed in the workplace and build meaningful careers.  What they lack is the opportunity to do so.  It is critical that we make these opportunities accessible to them – for these young adults, these companies, and our nation as a whole. 

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!

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