This month, The YES Project at America’s Promise Alliance is releasing a three-part blog series to illuminate the ways in which employers, youth-supporting programs, and intermediary organizations are helping young people become ready for, connected to, and supported in our unprecedented and rapidly evolving employment environment. The employment landscape has changed drastically since the start of the year, due in large part to the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and a heightened consciousness of the long-felt effects of systemic racism. In this series, three thought leaders will explore their own lessons learned in supporting opportunity talent—particularly Opportunity Youth—over the course of the pandemic, and what that might mean for the future.
As we navigate the stages of economic recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic, it is impossible to ignore the disproportionality in health, academic, economic, and employment outcomes for people of color—especially Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous communities. Recent estimates indicate that the pandemic will undo the progress to improve youth employment outcomes made over the last decade, and further emphasizes that “young people of color will be the hardest hit by the economic and social dislocation.”
At the Philadelphia Youth Network (PYN) we create equitable education and employment outcomes for youth and young adults, most of whom are from communities of color. We know that sustained systemic transformation is required to diminish the impacts of bias, racism, and socioeconomic inequality. While we do not have all the answers, we have found promising strategies connecting education and employment that employers, youth-supporting programs, funders, and any ally can employ to be a co-conspirator in creating economic and racial equity.
After several years of consistently higher demand for our programs, PYN explored digital experiences to ensure more young people can access opportunities that build essential skills for work through our youth employment programs. Two years ago, we extended our long-standing partnership with Comcast to build digital literacy skills into our programs. This enhancement better equipped participants with digital skills and tools needed to compete in tomorrow’s workforce. We had no idea that our partnership would take on greater significance in the wake of a global pandemic, where working virtually became essential. This partnership was foundational to Philadelphia's ability to deliver more than 6,000 summer experiences allowing young people, particularly young people of color, to earn money safely, virtually or in-person.
Early exposure to the requirements of work is essential to interrupting the cycle of poverty, especially for young adults who are filled with talent and potential but may lack social capital, diverse networks and/or real work experience required to distinguish them in a competitive job market. Employers can address the skills and opportunity gaps by creating career pathways that build early exposure to and awareness of their industry.
Hilco Redevelopment Partners (HRP) is an excellent example of this type of commitment and partnership. Their investment in a continuum of career-connected learning experiences for middle and high school students is part of a multi-million dollar effort to transform an oil refinery—which was previously a major environmental hazard—into a green, sustainable economic engine that benefits all Philadelphians, including young and promising talent. Additionally, with nearly ten years of partnership, PECO also provides a strong energy-sector example of what it means to begin early career exposure in high school and continue internships to self-sustaining employment. During this period, PECO has invested almost $900,000 in both their internal programs that focus on these initiatives as well as citywide summer programs managed by PYN.
To be an effective transformation agent, the investment in effective practices must be sustained for several years to create results. Particularly in trying to address the impacts of a devastating economic crisis like the one we are facing ahead of us, short-term strategies simply are not enough. With over ten years of local investment, totaling nearly a million dollars, Bank of America clearly understands the value of investing in sustainable partnerships. Our multi-faceted partnership goes beyond funding focusing on talent through direct hires, as well as building future talent through the national Student Leaders program. We are also a Neighborhood Builder Awardee which gives our organization much needed access to capacity building resources that help us improve our impact. Together, we have provided more than 530 local opportunities.
The recent events have created a brighter spotlight on the costs we all pay when systemic racism and institutional bias remain unaddressed. The consequences of this inequity are complex, but our path forward does not have to be mired by this reality. While these examples are a few among many, it is important to expand partnerships with new investments, create new career pathways, and sustain our efforts long enough to achieve the desired results. We will realize an equitable economic recovery by taking steps to transform systems into accelerators of economic opportunity for all.