How the ‘Opportunity Divide’ Threatens America’s Economic Future

"We must find ways to bring these young people into the economic mainstream"

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“Talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not.”

I first learned what this saying meant in 1987, when I served as a Big Brother in New York City. I was matched with a young Dominican boy named David, and for three years I spent every Saturday with him. He was bright, and sweet, and dreamed of one day being an artist. But David’s opportunities in life had been defined by his environment: his teachers did not know his name, his mother worked nonstop to support him and his brothers, and the housing project he called home was the most heavily photographed crime scene in New York City. Losing the ZIP-code lottery before he was born had limited the paths available to him to realize his potential.
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As this WorkingNation piece shows, stories like David’s and Chris’ are too common in America. We have six million young adults—one in seven young adults in this country—who are out of school and out of work with no more than a high school diploma. Paradoxically, over the next decade 12 million jobs will go unfilled due to a lack of skilled talent in our workforce. This is a two-dimensional market failure: employers’ demand for skills is not being met by traditional education and training systems, plus a massive supply of underutilized human capital with few bridges that connect the two. This mismatch forms the Opportunity Divide, which threatens both our nation’s economic competitiveness and the foundation of our civil society.

Employers can take a leading role in closing this divide by investing in the talent they need to remain competitive. Companies like JPMorgan Chase, Facebook, American Express, and LinkedIn have built pathways into their organizations that enable Opportunity Youth to earn a professional career. These companies, and many others, have worked with Year Up to provide career paths to thousands of young adults, all without college degrees, because they have realized a simple truth: Opportunity Youth are the economic assets our country needs, not the social liabilities they are too often perceived to be. Leading employers have found in Year Up a way to build their next generation of talent, which will be ready for the next generation of jobs. (In the accompanying video, “A Year Up,” Academy Award-winning director Barbara Kopple follows Christopher Hilliard, a young out-of-work security guard who made the transition into one of the world’s leading global PR firms in less than a year, thanks to the innovative efforts of the Year Up program.)

America is built on the promise of opportunity: work hard, get ahead. But that promise does not hold true for too many young people in this country, especially those who are people of color from lower socioeconomic upbringings. With millions of baby boomers retiring and taking their experience out of the workforce, the Fourth Industrial Revolution changing the nature of our economy to the extent that our education system is both outdated and unprepared, and an urgent need to address economic inequality and immobility in this country, we must find ways to bring these young people into the economic mainstream. Doing so is both a moral imperative and an economic necessity.

Gerald Chertavian is the CEO and founder of Year Up, an innovative program that empowers urban young adults to enter the economic mainstream. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Harvard Business School Social Enterprise Initiative.

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