Urban Alliance CEO Eshauna Smith published the following op-ed in Forbes:
This week, Urban Alliance released the first in a series of briefs examining youth unemployment during the pandemic and previewed our findings during a webinar with Grads of Life, the Rock Family of Companies, and YouthForce NOLA. Below we share some of our key learnings – and detail what employers can do to ensure that today’s students have the tools, experience, and social capital needed to transition into tomorrow’s workers.
2020 has been a year of disruptions: to our health and safety, economy, social structures, and concepts of work and home. 2020’s unparalleled changes also threaten to disrupt young people’s futures – perhaps for good. Without targeted, immediate intervention, we risk leaving an entire generation behind when we begin the COVID-19 recovery.
Young People – Particularly From Under-Resourced Communities – Are Struggling
Youth unemployment and disconnection have skyrocketed recently, a trend that Measure of America warns is likely to undo a decade of progress. In July, the youth labor force participation rate was the lowest ever recorded since the Bureau of Labor Statistics first began measuring it.
In fact, young people are by far the age group hardest hit by COVID-related unemployment, whether because the industries in which youth are traditionally employed such as hospitality and retail were most impacted by COVID closures, or due to a ‘last-hired, first-fired’ mentality that devalues the contributions young employees make in the workplace. Beyond job losses, the pandemic has disrupted young adults’ post-secondary plans and disconnected them from critical sources of support and guidance during the already fraught transition from high school to adulthood.
Low-income communities and communities of color have also been disproportionately impacted by the economic and health consequences of the virus, from deaths and infections to job losses and a digital divide making remote work more difficult – and that extends to youth in these communities. While employment is bouncing back somewhat for white youth, both unemployment and disconnection remain high for young people of color – an opportunity gap that is widening during the pandemic.
High Youth Unemployment Has Far-Reaching Consequences
But the consequences extend far beyond young people themselves. Youth disconnection can result in an economic loss of up to $1 trillion in reduced earnings and tax revenue and higher government spending. Youth unemployment decreases teens’ future productivity, leading to decreased GDP growth over time. For low-income families, youth unemployment also represents the loss of a critical source of income to cover basic needs.
Disconnecting the increasingly diverse Generation Z – a majority of whom identify as people of color – from today’s workforce will result in a less diverse future workforce, impacting companies’ revenue, innovation, and workplace culture, and widening the racial wealth divide – all leading to lower economic growth over time.
Employers Are Key to Transitioning Today’s Students Into Tomorrow’s Workforce – But They Must Act Now
2020’s disruptions have the potential to inflict long-term damage on an entire generation – especially youth of color – if businesses and communities do not act now. The good news is that well-designed youth employment programs are a proven way to build a more diverse, stable talent pipeline.
Employers – as the holders of jobs and primary beneficiaries of a strong talent pipeline – have both the opportunity and responsibility to ensure youth remain connected to the training, exposure, and networks needed to successfully transition to economic self-sufficiency. But they must act now. Here’s how:
1) Provide youth employment opportunities or invest in programs that do – The most impactful and straightforward way employers can build the next-generation workforce is to offer paid work experience to youth. For the many employers who are not in a position to offer immediate employment during the pandemic, partnering with workforce development programs in their communities like Urban Alliance can provide the initial connection to career exposure, job skills training, and social capital that under-resourced youth need to make a lasting connection to the workforce.
2) Cultivating cross-generation professional networks – 70% of job applicants find work through their professional networks – but employees from affluent communities are three times more likely to have a strong network. This ‘network gap’ is why mentoring is even more impactful for underserved youth, especially as the pandemic has disrupted access to a range of critical adult relationships. Businesses can be an important source of professional mentorship for young people while also enjoying the rewards of mentoring programs such as bolstering employee engagement, satisfaction, and retention and talent pipeline cultivation.
3) Creating more equitable access to available job opportunities – America’s history of systemic racism has created a persistent opportunity gap in which too many talented youth of color never have a real chance to compete. Employers can help to bridge this divide by updating hiring and employment practices to be more equitable and inclusive. Casting a wider net when recruiting, reconsidering which jobs require a college degree, creating more inclusive career ladders and professional development, and reducing reliance on existing networks to fill open positions can go a long way. (Check out Grads of Life’s Opportunity Employment framework for more recommendations.)
It’s not too late to ensure that the diverse, talented COVID generation becomes tomorrow’s workforce. But employers must act now – and intermediaries like Urban Alliance and Grads of Life are here to help every step of the way.
I’ll leave you with the words of Dan Ngoyi – Vice President of Talent Acquisition at Rock Central and an Urban Alliance employer partner – from our recent webinar:
“We need to double and triple our investment in the next generation. Without the ongoing support of businesses and our communities, the next generation, and specifically students of color, really risk being left behind during our recovery. Making the investment now and building a strong, equitable and diverse pipeline will lift our communities for decades and decades to come … We strongly encourage other businesses to follow suit, because we’ve already seen immediate returns in our community, in our workforce and across our business. So join us, join us, join us.”