Recognizing Alternative Pathways To Economic Prosperity


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It’s graduation season again – that time of year when young Americans take bold steps into the exciting and uncertain stages in their lives while parents look on, teary-eyed, proud, and nostalgic. Commencement speeches flood our social media channels, imparting pieces of life wisdom and reminding us that a new generation is coming of age.

My daughter graduated from high school just this week, and before long she’ll be moving to the other side of the country to start her first semester at a small liberal arts college. It’s a school with a strong sense of community, a beautiful campus, and a rigorous academic program that encourages students to work across disciplines and put their knowledge to practice in the real world.

I’m thrilled for my daughter and the growing experiences that she has ahead, but at the same time, I know that the path that she’s taking makes her the exception, not the norm, in our country. Although education at a 4-year institution is often portrayed as the most common and preferable step for young adults to take after high school, the reality is that only 29.4 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds are enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs.  And while a bachelor’s degree has been touted as a reliable contributor to wage growth, access to it is often not available to those who need it most. Less than 40 percent of children from the bottom fifth of the income scale attended college at all, compared to more than 90 percent of children from the top 1 percent.

The status quo is unacceptable in a country striving to be the land of opportunity, and solutions must be created to increase educational access to young people across the income distribution. At the same time, however, employers across the country must adopt innovative approaches to make economic opportunities available to individuals who may not have a college credential today but who are motivated to have fulfilling careers with the chance to build a career. A failure to do so not only compromises the American Dream – it undermines the health of the nation’s economy.

A recent article in the New York Times highlighted the effect that the current labor shortage is already having on the ability of companies to compete. Consistent job growth over the past eight years has led unemployment rates to fall below 4 percent in the metropolitan areas tracked by the Bureau of Labor statistics. In a growing number of locations, the main economic concern is not a lack of jobs, but an inability to find people to do them.

As with many problems, the solution to this one is hiding in plain sight. In the country today, there are over 5 million Opportunity Youth – young adults ages 16 to 24 who are out of school and not engaged in stable employment. In spite of the messages that are commonly spread through our media and culture, many of these young adults are highly motivated to achieve more, with skills and character qualities that make them valuable in the workplace. In spite of their talents and bold aspirations, many Opportunity Youth have not been able to land on the “traditional” path to success because of finances, family obligations, or a lack of professional guidance from people in their social circles.

A number of forward-thinking companies have recognized that these young people are the answer to their workforce woes and have created programs to effectively recruit and retain them in their workforce. Gap Inc., for example, has partnered with local nonprofit organizations to create This Way Ahead, a training and internship program that gives low-income young people their first work experiences while creating a cost-effective way for the company to meet its entry-level hiring needs. More than 75 percent of This Way Ahead graduates are hired for ongoing jobs with the company and they stay twice as long as other entry level employees. The program’s benefits have been so substantial that Gap has committed to expanding This Way Ahead to recruit 5 percent of its entry-level workforce through the program by 2025.

Another company that has taken meaningful action to integrate Opportunity Youth into its talent strategy is State Street, the Boston-based financial services holding company. Over the past 10 years, State Street has built a close partnership with Year Up, a nonprofit organization that provides job training and a 6-month internship experience to urban young adults in 16 cities across the country. To date, State Street has hired more than 300 Year Up alumni, and, like Gap, has taken steps to expand this partnership so that an increasing proportion of its entry-level workforce will be hired from Year Up over the coming years.

Business leaders interested in expanding their talent pipelines can learn from the experiences of employers like Gap and State Street that have been leaders in this work. Some best practices are below:

  • Reexamine degree requirements: The practice of listing degrees as a prerequisite for open roles rests on the assumption that degree achievement is an accurate predictor of a candidate’s performance in the workplace. However, it may have the unintended consequence of screening out applicants who may be a strong fit for the role at hand. If you find that many of your open roles require degrees, you may find it valuable to reflect on which skills the degree is meant to serve as a proxy for and what other methods can be used to assess those skills in applicants.
  • Build partnerships: By and large, the most effective Opportunity Youth talent pipelines are comprised of a partnership between an engaged employer and a workforce training provider or community-based organization. Successful collaborations require an investment of time and resources, but they allow an employer to leverage the training and support capacity of a provider to ensure a young person’s success in the workplace. Interested employers can search for training providers in their area on org.
  • Track Outcomes: Anyone who has attempted to launch or scale an initiative within a company knows that it is easier to do so if there is quantitative data to support the value of the program. In order to assess progress and identify areas for improvement, companies should launch talent pipeline partnerships with the intention of tracking metrics such as time-to-hire, interview-to-hire ratio, employee engagement, and retention.
  • Change company culture: Lastly, companies should establish norms and practices to make their workplace an environment where Opportunity Youth can thrive. Changing organizational culture in a deep way obviously takes time, but employers can start by holding trainings on diversity and inclusion in the workplace and implementing best practices for investing entry-level talent to support retention and advancement.

This graduation season, we should celebrate not only those young people that are embarking on the path to four-year colleges, but also those that are taking meaningful steps to set themselves up for career success in other ways. American employers can facilitate this cultural shift by expanding pathways to employment for individuals that don’t currently have four-year degrees. Doing so will both help to create a more equitable society and ensure their ability to find the workers needed to support economic growth.

Elyse Rosenblum is the Principal of Grads of Life, a national initiative that works to build a high-functioning Opportunity Youth talent marketplace by creating tools and products to influence employer perceptions and hiring practices.

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