08/09/2012 04:39 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2012

Unleashing America's Talent

"Back to school" season is in full swing. Hundreds of thousands of our nation's recent graduates are wishing it were "off to work" season.

We are at risk of losing the tremendous creative, intellectual and economic potential of a generation of young people. Youth unemployment is double the national average. Even those young people graduating with four year degrees are not immune to challenges associated with today's difficult job market. Prospects for returning veterans are even worse, and young people disengaged from school and work face the greatest obstacles to employment. How can young people develop the skills and experience they need to find jobs when employment opportunities are so scarce?

Voices for National Service recently released "National Service: Providing Pathways to Employment," a report that highlights the unique role national service programs play in providing young Americans with a way to build leadership and jobs skills in a tough economy, while helping to solve some of the pressing problems facing our communities and the nation.

Every year, national service provides tens of thousands of people with a year of service that teaches the skills and provides the experience demanded by nonprofit, corporate and public sector employers who are looking for workers in this challenging economy.

A record number of young people are lining up to serve their communities through AmeriCorps. Applications have risen 62 percent from 360,000 in 2009 to more than 582,000 in 2011. Today, just 82,500 AmeriCorps slots are available, denying tens of thousands of applicants the opportunity to gain valuable experience and hone relevant skills before stepping out into the globally competitive workforce.

It's a great deal for the country. For a small stipend and a modest education award to help with college debt, AmeriCorps members receive extensive on-the-job training and the chance to explore careers they might not have previously considered while they are transforming the lives of the people and communities they serve. For example, two-thirds of Community Health Corps alumni, many of whom had no prior experience in the healthcare field, have pursued careers as doctors, health educators, social workers, medical assistants and registered nurses after the conclusion of their service in the Corps. Sixty-seven percent of Teach for America's AmeriCorps members, remain in education after their two years in the program, working as teachers or as education entrepreneurs leading some of the most innovative education reform efforts in the country. YouthBuild, an AmeriCorps program that engages low-income 16-24 year olds in six to 24 months of full-time construction work, reports that 70-80 percent of its graduates are placed in post-secondary education or full-time employment, and researchers estimate that at least $96,000 and as much as $146,000 in benefits are generated in higher wages and increased productivity.

Given the rapid growth of the nonprofit sector, (the third largest industry in America's economy which employs 10.5 million workers, or one tenth of America's workforce), the skills acquired through a year or two of national service are particularly relevant to strengthening and supporting communities and families hit hard by the economic downturn.

As Members of Congress spend their August recess at home in their districts, they would benefit from talking to the young people who want to serve. Despite the myriad benefits to the nation and historic bipartisan support for national service, these programs are routinely targeted for elimination or drastic funding cuts. At a time when young Americans of every background need pathways to employment, we should focus on increasing access to every opportunity to build the valuable skills that can lead to a meaningful career. With sufficient investment in national service, hundreds of thousands more Americans could be heading "off to work", to the great benefit of our communities and our country.