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We Need to Put Young People to Work

November 10, 2020
Brandee McHale, Head of Community Investing and Development at Citi and President of the Citi Foundation

While we have yet to realize the long-term economic impacts of COVID-19, one thing is certain. Employment for youth and young adults, and particularly those from underserved communities, has been disproportionately affected. Already, the unemployment rate among these communities in the nation is about twice the national average and continuing a steep, upward climb, making an already uneven playing field that much worse.

When young people aren't working, it's bad for the economy, social mobility and the country. They go on to earn lower wages for many years due to a lack of experience and missed opportunities to develop skills. In fact, the Center for American Progress has reported that if nearly 1 million young people experience long-term unemployment – over six months – they will lose a staggering $20 billion in earnings over the next decade, perpetuating the cycles of poverty and income inequality in the U.S.

To tackle this persistent and worsening problem, we need to increase access and connect young people to more non-traditional ways for them to pursue a career and economic ambitions. These should include paid internships, apprenticeships, technical training and entrepreneurship programs, rather than simply relying on the more traditional high school to college to a career path.

For example, apprenticeships are becoming more popular in the U.S. among workforce advocates, workers, employers, and policy-makers. Just a few months ago, the New York City Jobs CEO Council, a coalition of CEOs from some of the city's top employers, was launched in partnership with non-profit organizations and education entities to prepare young people from low-income, Black and Latinx communities for the future of work. Apprenticeships are an important component of this endeavor. They can help fill thousands of long-standing vacancies in growing sectors such as technology, senior care and construction. Many of the open positions do not require a four-year degree and people who complete an apprenticeship can expect to earn an average annual income of approximately $60,000, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Apprenticeships and other non-traditional workforce pathways can't be implemented in a vacuum, though. Rather, these opportunities must be part of a comprehensive holistic approach that involves mentoring and career coaching, financial literacy programming, mental health and wellness counseling, and even housing assistance. The impact can be profound.

Consider one example: NPower, an organization operating in six states, including New Jersey and New York, that addresses the lack of young women of color in the tech talent pipeline. Through its "40x22: Advancing Young Women of Color in Technology" initiative, participants aged 18-24 from underserved and low-income communities are enrolled in a 22-week training and internship program. They also participate in online classes and mock interviews and receive mentoring to refine their skills and help them better prepare for a digital-virtual presence, as well as financial assistance to help them meet needs caused by the current pandemic.

I know from personal experience how such initiatives can transform lives. I had a non-traditional journey myself, opting to gain real-life work experience for several years before going back to get my college degree. Although I took a different path than my peers, the jobs and community volunteering opportunities I had were invaluable building blocks for my development, and ultimately helped me shape my own career aspirations.

Today, I head the Citi Foundation, which has already invested approximately $200 million in our Pathways to Progress job skills-building initiative, through which underserved youth are equipped with the skills and confidence they need to succeed in rapidly changing economies and build stronger futures for themselves, their families and their communities. By 2023, we expect to cumulatively impact more than one million young people around the world through skills-building, workforce training, mentorship, leadership development, entrepreneurship, and job opportunities.

Even with such a significant influx of funding, we are only touching the tip of the iceberg. There are nearly 40 million individuals ages 16-24 in the United States and 1.2 billion in the world. Our future depends on ensuring equal access to economic opportunity for all of them. One's zip code should not define one's destiny.


*Opinion piece originally published in The Star-Ledger/