THE BLOG
06/25/2013 09:49 am ET | Updated Aug 25, 2013

National Service 2.0

We've got the perfect storm. And the perfect opportunity.

A generation of young adults is entering the job market at a time when youth unemployment is at more than 16 percent. The many 16 to 24-year olds who are disconnected from school and work, veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, and recent college graduates who are looking for work represent human capital left on the table if we do not successfully engage them. Research shows that every year they are cut out of the labor force will decrease their earnings over their lifetimes.

At the same time, nonprofits, schools, and public agencies are facing sustained demand for services, but due to tight public budgets, cannot afford to expand the assistance they can offer. And new organizations are springing up every day, including new social enterprises, which combine earned income with social missions (a third of states now have legal forms for businesses that prioritize their social missions over their profit goals).

What if any social-purpose organization could, at a modest cost, create national service positions for young adults to expand their programs or start new ones? We could engage hundreds of thousands of young adults in a "service year" and solve some of the nation's most intractable challenges. Such engagement would develop their skills for the workforce and build leaders, while putting more Americans to work solving our high school dropout epidemic, conserving threatened rivers and parks, responding to disasters, and helping re-integrate veterans in community life. Some might even go into public service and learn how to work across party lines to get things done, while others would reconnect to school and launch successful careers in the private sector.

Today, demand for national service positions outstrips supply by a factor of five with little marketing. It is time to use 21st century strategies to create a national service certification system open to any 501(c)3 nonprofit, public agency, tribal government, or social enterprise. With such a system, the number of Americans officially performing "national service" could double, triple, or quadruple within a few years. National service could become deeply embedded in our culture and a rite of passage for millions.

Such a system holds such promise for democratizing and modernizing national service. Imagine tens of thousands of non-profits, colleges and universities, social enterprises, public agencies, and other qualifying organizations becoming certified to offer national service positions. Hundreds of thousands of searchable national service opportunities could be posted on a system like Monster.com. The system would not have to be bureaucratic and heavy handed, but streamlined to approve positions incorporating self-assessment, spot checks, and peer review, comparable to Kiva's system to approve micro-investment organizations.

Social platforms have emerged to unlock resources from individuals and private sector institutions. Funding of such positions could be provided by alumni, foundations, or corporations. Other positions might be the subject of "crowd-funding" through efforts such as Kickstarter. Other funders might want to fund the positions as if they were endowing a scholarship or fellowship.

To ensure the national service opportunities are high quality and meet key criteria, corps members, beneficiaries, community members, and sponsors could rate their experiences in ways similar to eBay, Yelp, and Amazon.

The benefits of such a system could abound -- with learning opportunities for the staff of organizations and national service members to receive targeted content and be connected to their peers; incentives and benefits generated from public and private sources similar to credit card reward programs and AARP benefits; a simple way for local leaders to contact and convene corps members for local service projects; and a national recruitment system through social media, and the ability of organizations to search for and contact candidates. Those graduating from their service year would be treated as a class across the United States and receive Presidential recognition. Employers and college admission officers could offer preferences to those who completed a year or more of national service, creating a new class of "civilian veterans."

National Service has been limited to those organizations that receive federal support through AmeriCorps, despite extraordinary demand for positions. We need AmeriCorps to continue to grow as the premier national service program, providing essential financial support for philanthropically underserved communities and high-impact programs, as well as Segal AmeriCorps education awards for those who serve.

Large numbers of programs in operation, however, are essentially similar to AmeriCorps but are not part of a national service system for a variety of reasons. Limited resources for AmeriCorps have meant longstanding grantees have lost support. Stiff competition has kept other worthy programs out. Organizations that place people internationally are not eligible, and neither are many social enterprises. The complexity of managing federal grants, or philosophical differences, discourages others.

Early in the days of AmeriCorps, tremendous creativity swept the country as organizations found ways to put idealistic young Americans into service. Innovative programs, from Teach For America and City Year to small local efforts were creative. They have changed the way that the nation approaches public problem-solving and inspired hundreds of thousands of young adults to pursue public service careers. We need that kind of energy today.

Making this system a robust national service platform requires participation across American society. We will need nonprofits, public agencies, and social enterprises to apply to be certified and create and post positions; community foundations, business, and individuals to fund local positions and scholarships; companies to sponsor rewards for corps members; higher education institutions to develop programs and match service scholarship funds; and most importantly, young people to serve. By working together, we can build on our strong existing system and create a new chapter for national service that will transform lives and strengthen our nation.

This post is part of a collaboration between The Huffington Post and The Aspen Institute, in which a variety of thinkers, writers and experts will explore the most pressing issues of our time. For more posts from this partnership, click here. For more information on The Aspen Institute, click here.

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