Why you should care

Millennials, the oldest of whom are pushing 40, still struggle with debt and lack of savings. It’s time we give America’s young people a leg up.

Nearly 10 years into an economic recovery, young people in the United States are still struggling. Youth unemployment rates are double that of the prime-age U.S. population, and an estimated 4.6 million individuals ages 16-24 are neither in school nor working. Youth of color face disproportionately higher disconnection rates and additional barriers to school and career success. Young people are forced to navigate too many uncoordinated, underfunded systems — often on their own.

We’re not setting all young people up for success. This hurts them most of all, of course, but it also harms employers, who struggle to hire and retain needed workers in their communities — and this damages our national economy.

It’s time — long past time — for a new plan, one that truly guarantees quality education and real work opportunities to all young people, not just those who can afford it.

That’s why we are calling for the creation of a Youth Opportunity Guarantee that promises every young person, regardless of their background, three things — high school, postsecondary education and work — designed to maximize their opportunity for long-term career success. The guarantee would offer high-quality career technical education, work-based learning and college prep curriculum for high school–age students. It would also include a range of postsecondary options that are affordable, designed for completion and intended to lead into a good-quality offer of career training, service or employment after finishing school. These three components would intersect rather than occur separately and would be nested in a local framework that works collaboratively to weave the currently disjointed structure into one integrated system that serves all young people more successfully.

Success in the United States should not be determined by your zip code.

We need cohesive, integrated systems of education and employment. Tackling youth education and employment challenges requires a holistic approach that stretches both vertically, from the federal government down to the local level, and horizontally, to include cross-sector community collaboration. The point of the guarantee is not simply to improve the individual components of education and work, but to shift the entire process into something more collaborative. Without an integrated approach, we risk losing youth in the inevitable gaps.

What we are proposing is not merely aspirational. In communities across the country, serious solutions are being designed and implemented. New York City, which has the nation’s largest summer jobs program serving more than 70,000 youth, has expanded and is reworking its systems to connect students’ work experiences over multiple summers and align them with their in-school education. The goal is to provide young people — particularly those from low-income families — with a series of career awareness and work experiences during their high school years. Similarly, the LA Compact represents commitments from schools, employers, unions and community groups to offer greater career readiness opportunities for young people across Los Angeles.

Around the country, we have seen great progress in increasing the rates of young people who are graduating from high school and enrolling in college. But these steps are not translating into college completion and meaningful career preparation. Looking at this data, and the benefits that have accrued for young people in a new wave of career and technical education high schools, the Community Service Society of New York led a successful campaign to vastly increase the numbers of high school students who participate in paid internships and to connect that work to students’ school-year academic interests and projects. Those experiences not only build young people’s skills, but they also let them make much more informed choices about postsecondary education and training, offering the hope for better retention and success in college and jobs.

Successfully implementing the guarantee would require commitment across the community and across government, nonprofit and private sectors. At the local level, a “backbone” intermediary organization would coordinate the partnership, with governmental leadership from the mayor, county executive or tribal leadership. Key partners would include K-12 education, postsecondary institutions, employers and the workforce system, local government, unions, foundations, nonprofits, young leaders and other civic leaders. Together, first steps would be conducting a community assessment, collaboratively developing and implementing a strategy to achieve the guarantee, collecting and analyzing data and further expanding the partnership to maximize impact.

We know that youth from higher-income communities already enjoy opportunities to explore their interests and develop skills outside of high school, making them more likely to succeed when they take their next steps. But success in the United States should not be determined by your zip code. It should not be determined by the color of your skin or where your parents were born. All youth and young adults should be given a fair chance to achieve their educational and career dreams.

Our nation faces daunting challenges, from the climate crisis to extreme inequality and an aging population. With access to high-quality education, training, credentials and work experiences, all young people will have the opportunity to become the employees, entrepreneurs and leaders America desperately needs.

Peter Edelman is the faculty director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, and David Jones is the president and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York.

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