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Leave No Young Adult Behind

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Recent headlines have drawn attention to the dire state of employment for young people in America today. The Associated Press recently reported that half of those under 25 years of age with a bachelor's degree -- or 1.5 million people -- are jobless or underemployed. But things are even worse for the 6.7 million young people who neither have a college degree nor a job -- so-called "disconnected youth." We must act now to engage these young people for the sake of our communities, our economy, and the young people themselves.

Earlier this week, the White House hosted a Summit on Community Solutions for Disconnected Youth that drew administration officials, philanthropists, nonprofit leaders, and dozens of formerly disconnected youth to examine the challenges and opportunities of engaging these young people. Today, the Clinton Global Initiative is convening leaders from all sectors in Chicago to consider how to connect these young people.

These young people come from every part of America. They are Caucasian, African American, Asian American, Latino, Native American, gay, straight, male, female, urban, and rural. There are a wide range of reasons for their disconnection. Some have faced huge barriers such as child abuse and bad schools. Some have struggled with addition and juvenile delinquency. Others have family responsibilities because of parents or siblings who have special needs or because they have children of their own. In most cases, they lack the work experience, educational background, transportation, or how-to knowledge to access educational and career opportunities.

Despite their barriers, they are an optimistic group according to a recent survey by Peter D. Hart Research for Civic Enterprises and the America's Promise Alliance. Seventy-three percent are very confident or hopeful about achieving their goals, 67 percent want a college or technical degree, and 85 percent want a good career and job. These young people aren't seeking welfare, but some support connecting to opportunity. Seventy-seven percent of them believe that getting a good education and job are their own responsibilities.

This echoes the experience we have had at Public Allies, where we have found incredible leadership talent in this population. Bizunesh Scott was an 18-year-old single mom starting community college when she enrolled in our AmeriCorps program. Today, she is not only a successful lawyer, but recently served as Special Assistant to the President for Presidential Personnel at the White House. Tomás Garrett-Rosas was a high school dropout and gang member who got his GED before participating in our AmeriCorps program. Recently, he completed his PhD and is now a professor working to improve education for African American and Latino boys. Tanisha Brown was the daughter of a teen mother who was addicted to drugs, experienced foster care, and became a teen mother herself. Today, she is completing a degree in Behavioral Science and counseling emancipated foster children.

I have had the privilege of working with hundreds of young leaders like Bizunesh, Tomás, and Tanisha, and I know there are hundreds of thousands more like them. Engaging these young people can be difficult and not everyone succeeds, but overall our track record and programs like YouthBuild demonstrate that when you help them harness their talent, passion, and ambition, they can take off and be huge assets to our communities and our nation. It doesn't take a huge investment to make this happen.

The cost of not engaging this talent drags down our economy. In 2011 alone, taxpayers shouldered more than $93 billion to compensate for lost taxes and direct costs to support young people disengaged from both education and work. Over their lifetimes, this group will cost society $4.7 trillion.

There is a way forward and the young people themselves tell us how. These young people don't want a hand-out, they want a hand-up. They seek relationships with successful peers, professors, and business mentors who can help them learn how to access education and jobs. Seventy-eight percent want "Learn and Earn" opportunities where they can both work to gain experience and income while attending school or career training at the same time.

The White House Council on Community Solutions identified a number of specific solutions outlined in our final report. Success in connecting these young people will require cross-sector collaboration so that families, nonprofits, schools, business, and government are working together. We need to see the connection of these young people as a national priority and hold our institutions accountable for results. Young people will need to be leaders in identifying the solutions that will work best. And we need to create more robust on-ramps to education and employment for these young people. One of the resources we created is an employer tool kit for those who seek best practices on how best to engage this talent.

There is one recommendation that I especially believe the President and Congress should act on immediately. Sixty-nine percent of these young people want to make a difference improving the lives of others and few are connected to volunteer opportunities where they can give back. The bi-partisan Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act that passed in 2009 can put these young people to good work. The bill was supported by over three-quarters of Congress with many prominent Republican co-sponsors. Mitt Romney, while Governor of Massachusetts, led his fellow governors in supporting AmeriCorps funding at the federal level. National service programs help young people gain skills, experience, and become better citizens while they help strengthen our schools, health centers, and neighborhoods that need all the help they can get.

During the 2008 Presidential campaign, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama came together and agreed on this which resulted in the 2009 act. Our nation would be heartened amid all the partisan rancor if this year's candidates could come together again on something they agree on that is good for our communities and our economy.

At a time when young people need opportunities and our economy is suffering, full implementation of the Serve America Act could generate over 170,000 more employed young people -- not enough but a big contribution in the right direction. More than half a million applied to serve last year so there is plenty of demand. And if half of those positions, as our White House Council recommends, were reserved for disconnected youth there would be many young people able to get on a path to employment and education.

Unemployment is a major challenge for the generation coming of age today. We need to provide opportunities for both those coming from our campuses and coming from our communities. There are solutions that cost tens of billions less than inaction. In an era of unemployment and austerity, let's be both caring and wise and do the right thing.

Paul Schmitz is the CEO of Public Allies, a national AmeriCorps program, author of "Everyone Leads: Building Leadership from the Community Up," and a member of the White House Council on Community Solutions.

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