Connecting Opportunity Youth to First Jobs and Meaningful Career Pathways By Sangeeta Tyagi, President, YouthBuild USA

On Thursday, October 15, America Forward will launch “Moving America Forward: Innovators Lead the Way to Unlocking America’s Potential,” a briefing book intended for 2016 Presidential candidates and policymakers at all levels of government who aspire to unlock the potential of all Americans and make our nation, once again, the land of opportunity. Over the next week, America Forward will feature solutions from our Coalition of social innovators to address the five challenges of our time laid out in “Moving America Forward.” Today, Sangeeta Tyagi, President of YouthBuild USA, addresses the “First Jobs” challenge and discusses how Youthbuild is opening first job opportunities so young adults can step onto a pathway to a career.


Even as the U.S. economy improves, it still faces chronic challenges related to youth employment, and especially to the re-connection of Opportunity Youth to education and work. Currently 6.7 million 16 to 24-year-olds in America are disconnected from school and work – 2.3 million of them are from low-income families. At a time when 14 million U.S. jobs requiring postsecondary degrees will go unfilled in the next ten years, this mismatch has serious implications for the health of local communities and for the U.S. economy overall.

Opportunity Youth represent a key lynchpin for our economic progress, they also represent a necessary stakeholder group to be engaged for our social well-being. Connecting them to career pathways carries a considerable return on investment through saved social costs of $704,000 per student for every student placed on an education and career track.

Closing this opportunity gap will require innovative solutions empowering low-income young adults to successfully bridge three pressing gaps – a Skills Gap; an Information Gap; and a Perception/Belief Gap.

Skills Gap
Opportunity Youth need quality learning opportunities to learn and practice real skills that relate to real jobs in their community.

For Opportunity Youth to be effectively connected to careers they need the academic preparation, the knowledge of career options, the credentials necessary for the specific career of interest, and opportunities to learn how to relate to the world of work. Work experiences including internships, apprenticeships, service opportunities that link to work, and on the job training experiences are all critical to the preparation for first jobs and subsequent career pathways. Organizations that serve Opportunity Youth must partner with employers to understand the skills and credentials necessary for employee success in that sector. And employers could find able partners in community-based organizations, schools, and programs serving Opportunity Youth to help young people stay in first jobs and to receive the ongoing supports they need to find their feet in the workplace.

YouthBuild programs are providing a combination of meaningful relationships, work experience, industry-recognized certifications, paid stipends and technical expertise as a springboard to connect Opportunity Youth to first jobs that can launch their career pathways.

The work we are doing with Starbucks Coffee Company and Schultz Family Foundation via our Customer Service Excellence Training demonstrate the value of this approach. In this program, YouthBuild USA and local staff have co-created a customer service curriculum that marries the best in class training of Starbucks with the leadership development, community service, postsecondary readiness training, and comprehensive supports of YouthBuild. Part classroom training and part on-the-job training, the skill development helps link young people to first jobs with the potential for growth and the flexibility to meet personal, parenting and postsecondary education needs.

Information Gap
Opportunity Youth need information about and exposure to the range of career options that exist and that align with their skills, interests and abilities and offer career pathways.

Exacerbating the skills gap is the mismatch between Opportunity Youth not having a wide enough exposure to career options and employers not knowing how to access the pool of talented young people available for training and employment. Unfortunately, Opportunity Youth lack the social capital, the exposure to multiple career options, and the information to navigate the credential/career/networking nexus.

Jobs for the Future and YouthBuild USA have partnered with the Noyce Family Foundation to create MyBestBets – an interactive, user friendly web and mobile application designed to dramatically increase the number of young people who: 1) earn post-secondary credentials that employers value and 2) find good jobs with long-term potential.

To do this, MyBestBets streamlines and enhances the counseling process by empowering students with information and digital literacy skills. The platform provides an interactive, digitally-based postsecondary and career exploration process for students, coupled with monitoring tools for coaches.  The MyBestBets platform offers youth a realistic and holistic understanding of career pathways – providing access to integrated labor market data, regional postsecondary program information, and employer information – via a decision-making set of tasks that empower students to identify their “best bet”. The student-user also benefits from having access to their coach through the platform.

Perception and Belief Gap
Opportunity youth need employers, postsecondary educators and others to see them as assets and not as problems, recognize their talents, and offer them a chance to connect to work.

At YouthBuild programs we see every day that Opportunity Youth have what it takes to be leaders succeeding in college and careers. We see innumerable examples of young people who would have thrived had the education, workforce and juvenile justice systems had the capacity to recognize their talents and meet their needs.

As young people connect to employment and brighter futures, their families and communities are strengthened and the impacts are felt among their peers and in the subsequent generation as their children become more likely to stay in school. Engaging Opportunity Youth benefits employers as they build brand value, reach new markets, recruit and retain top talent, and enhance their overall social impact.

The goal of the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative is impressive, in this context. YouthBuild USA is a proud partner of this initiative and is bringing young leaders to meet with corporate CEOs to help them understand the challenges and training needs of Opportunity Youth and advising on effective recruitment and retention strategies for corporations to engage increasing numbers of low-income youth. We are also partnering with Grads of Life as they connect employers with Opportunity Youth and help bridge the expectation and information gap between the two.

Our collective well-being depends on building the bridges that will help to close these gaps. Policy gaps, resource gaps, and scale and sustainability challenges are all real as well but strategic partnerships between the public, non-profit and corporate sector can address these challenges – the solutions are already emerging.

For more information on the five challenges and “Moving America Forward” follow @America_Forward and #AFPresidential16.

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