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Reshma Saujani Headshot

Advocating for Young Americans

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Just over five years ago, a young college student in New York City started dreaming up a new social software application inspired by the chaotic cacophony of taxicab communications in the city. While many of his peers were at their school's career services office trying to find a job, he was in the campus computer lab building his own. That young man was Jack Dorsey, and he went on to launch Twitter, sparking a social media revolution that would eventually stretch from dorm rooms to Tahrir Square.

We are a generation that dreams big dreams. As President Obama declared during this year's State of the Union address, we are a country that "does big things."

Today, however, too many of our young people have seen their dreams deferred at the hands of a terrible recession that has been particularly brutal for America's youth. In April 2010, the unemployment rate of young people (ages 16 to 24) hit 18.4%, the highest rate since 1948, when records started being kept. The prospects for young minorities have been even worse. Presently 45.0% of African American youth are unemployed, and 35.4% of Hispanic youth are unemployed. Study after study shows that even short periods of unemployment at the onset of one's career can have damaging effects on his or her lifetime employment outcomes.

Too often, the personal devastation and financial anxiety folks feel is obscured by statistics and monthly reports. Every job lost is more than a number; it is a missed medical check-up or it puts a child's higher education even further out of reach. The dignity of work transcends class or race or gender -- it is a universal American value, and we have an obligation to ensure that our young people have the chance to achieve their full potential.

The Obama administration has taken a series of immediate steps in the wake of the recession to aid young people. The president has worked with Congress to extend emergency aid to disadvantaged youth through the TANF program, to reduce interest rates and expand access to Pell grants and Perkins loans, to increase the American Opportunity Tax Credit, and to extend health insurance coverage for people under 26. Beyond these measures, we as a nation need to start thinking big about how we will empower a new generation of Americans to do big things in this rapidly changing, and at times disruptive, economic order.

First, we need to more clearly identify, promote, and connect young people without a college degree to a portfolio of portable skills they can use to compete in today's dynamic economy. While long-term efforts such as revamping our K-12 curriculum are critical, they do not address the immediate jobs crisis. A portable skills portfolio for young people with some high school or a degree should include training in current core skills like data management, information systems, and technical training. We cannot deny that all of our children, regardless of academic achievement, must be prepared to compete in this global economy. That means teaching them technical skills.

We can do this right here in New York by creating a public-private partnership that pairs our high schools and community colleges with companies who commit to hire students who have graduated from an intensive, accelerated 'Twenty-first Century Skills' program in exchange for a tax cut for employer payroll contribution.

Second, we need to ensure that all of America's young people, regardless of their country of origin, can contribute to this country which they call home. We must pass the DREAM Act for immigrant students who are here through no fault of their own, grew up as Americans, and want to go to college or serve in the military. We should extend the H-1B visa program for foreign college students who study at our nation's top universities. We should staple a green card to the degree of any foreign student who graduates in science, technology, engineering, or math. We must do this because currently American startups and small business are craving engineers and employees with technical skills. They are unable to grow their business and make additional hires because America is facing a shortage of workers with these skills.
In addition, the Senate and the House must pass the Start-up Visa Act of 2011 for foreign entrepreneurs who want to start a company in the States and create jobs here.

Lastly, we need to fundamentally change our vision of the career paths of young people today. Members of the millennial generation will have ten to twelve jobs over the span of their careers, not two to three like their grandparents. We need to fundamentally re-evaluate the way we think of job training and prepare our children for not one trade, but equip them with a portfolio of portable skills.

I recently spoke to a group of minority high schools students at the YMCA in the West Side. I asked them to raise their hand if they are hoping to get a job in math, science, technology or engineering. Three-quarters of the room raised their hands. It blew me away. Young people realize the world is changing. They are adapting their vision of the future, and we must too.

America's competitive economic advantage has always been rooted in the creativity and ingenuity of our young dreamers and doers. Failing to confront our youth unemployment crisis does not only imperil our economic recovery today, but cedes our greatest competitive edge in the future. As a recent headline aptly put it, 'The Kids are Not Alright'. It's time to advocate for our greatest resource, our youth. It's time to re-invest in our young people and, in turn, enlist them in remaking America.