Why Employers Should Connect to Opportunity Youth in 2021

Charles Hiteshew

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.

How do companies access the talent they need in the current market?

How do disconnected young people access decent work opportunities?

Almost a year ago, I joined the 100K Opportunities Initiative (which will soon re-launch as the Hire Opportunity Coalition) to usher the Coalition into its next phase of instrumental work. Our Coalition, founded by the then-CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, prioritized hiring five million Opportunity Youth (OY)—young people who are both out of school and out of work. Howard first looked to hire within Starbucks, but quickly realized the significant national contribution that could be made by bringing other major companies into the fold. After several years, the Coalition grew to more than 50 companies strong and surpassed its initial goal of 100,000 hires within three years of its launch.

Prior to COVID-19, the nation had made consistent and substantive progress in improving youth employment outcomes—when this work started in 2012 there were around five million young people who were categorized as OY; in March of this year there were 4.5 million. Three months later, after the onset of the pandemic, not only were all gains from the last eight years erased but recent estimates indicate that soon, the number of OY could reach nearly nine million. In short, almost one in four young people aged 16-24 is neither in school nor employed. That is simply not acceptable ethically, nor is it tenable if we are to maintain a stable democracy.

Not only are the future job prospects of these youth at greater risk the longer they remain unemployed, but the already-stretched social safety nets will simply collapse with the growing needs of these young people over time, if unaddressed. This doesn’t even begin to aggregate the costs associated with lost earnings and tax revenues, increased crime, incarceration, and the associated disenfranchisement that can undermine and implode modern civil life. In short, this is a powder keg waiting to explode. Amidst many other current challenges facing our country, it’s time we turn our attention to this one.

As many companies are dealing with their own COVID-related obstacles, recognition is growing that OY can and must be part of this recovery—but many companies are not well equipped to connect with these young people. In our member companies, we have seen dwindling teams and staff rotating between the demanding triumvirate roles of recruitment, corporate responsibility, and DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion). All of these functions are essential to the health and future profitability of their respective missions; there just aren’t as many people staffing these roles as there have been in the past.

The current challenges make it even more urgent to ensure that young people—particularly OY—are connected to these companies. In this way, the Hire Opportunity Coalition (HOC) acts as a facilitator of mutual benefit. Many of our corporate members must extend their capacity to develop diverse pipelines of entry-level employees, but often don’t have the bandwidth to make that happen. Conversely, millions of talented young people are seeking meaningful work but lack access or the social capital needed to access these opportunities. In working with a large database of local OY support programs across the country, HOC brokers that relationship for the member company, which often produces candidates that come to the job not only ready and prepared to work, but with the ongoing support of that nearby local nonprofit that helped place them in that job.

But hiring is only half the challenge; the other part is making sure that the young person has the support, and in many cases the wraparound services, to ensure s/he can thrive on the job despite the myriad challenges that may exist outside of work. They may need help with transportation, flexible scheduling, sensitivity to parenting responsibilities, or perhaps they simply want to advance in the company and need guidance from a caring company mentor.

In advance of 100K Opportunities’ relaunch into our new identity of the Hire Opportunity Coalition in January 2021, we have initiated a 20 for 20 Challenge which invites any company to use our service to get connected to local youth service providers in targeted markets. We will take the company request, match the company with at least one respected service provider in the given zip code, and make a warm introduction by email or conference call. We have no doubt we can get 20 companies to join the movement of connecting with at least 20 local providers. Companies large and small have an important role to play in addressing this employment crisis, and thankfully, companies can do this to their own benefit. By recruiting corporations at some scale, we can begin to generate the increasing sensitivity and action that our young people require. They have never needed us more, and I have faith that in this critical moment, we will deliver.