06/15/2012 11:38 am ET Updated Aug 15, 2012

Missing Out on a Rite of Passage?

Do you remember your first job and all of the lessons that it taught you? Perhaps lessons you're still using today. My first job was a newspaper route when I was 13-years-old. That job taught me a lot about responsibility -- if I didn't get up at 5 a.m. to deliver the paper, my customers were not going to have a good start to their day.

Today, for many young people, especially those from less advantaged communities, finding their first job isn't just challenging in this tough economy, it can seem almost impossible.

As the summer jobs season begins, let's look back to last year's youth employment numbers. In July 2011, at the peak of the summer jobs season, unemployment among 16- to 24-year-olds was 18.1%, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That was nearly double the rate of total unemployment in the U.S. This number represents some 4.1 million young people who wanted a job but couldn't find one and are missing out on a valuable life experience that provides them with an important step toward adulthood.

So what can be done to address this situation? How can companies help lend a hand during these tough times as a generation of young people potentially miss out on this rite of passage?

I believe every U.S. company has the ability to introduce young people to the business world and the knowledge, skills, and experience that are required to take the first step to getting a job. And this investment in our youth is not only good for them -- it is good for business.

According to a recently published report by Columbia University and Queen's College CUNY, the cost per year of youth disconnected from school and work translates into more than $93 billion in lost taxes and direct costs to support these young people. That should matter to business. As the future workforce of our nation, we should be concerned that a generation of young people is not being exposed to the type of skill and character-building experiences that many before them have had and learned from. By challenging the private sector to invest in developing young people with work-relevant skills, we are also asking companies to invest in our nation's future competitiveness in an increasingly global economy.

Through the efforts of the White House Council for Community Solutions, we identified three key ways that companies can provide young people with work-relevant learning experience. While we originally identified these three ways of engagement in the context of the Council's work supporting youth disconnected from work and school, we believe these approaches can apply to all young people regardless of their circumstances.

First, there is the development of soft skills, such as communications, time management, decision making and team work. Companies can provide anything from volunteer mentors who can share their wisdom, hold soft skills workshops on a variety of useful topics, or simply practice interviews with young people at a local nonprofit. Not only does this help young people gain critical skills, but it also enables employees to build connection with their communities and company.

Second, companies can build a young person's skills by providing more direct work-related experiences, such as job shadow days, career exploration guidance and job readiness training. Through these experiences the company's employees get to tap into what excites them about their careers and share that enthusiasm with youth, which in turn can spark the young people's interest in a particular field of work and keep them engaged in their schoolwork.

Third, companies can also support youth by creating "learn and earn" positions, which provide young people an opportunity to learn on the job and develop marketable skills while getting paid for the work that they do. These positions can come in the form of internships, apprenticeships or permanent jobs that are usually coupled with a mentor or buddy, as well as structured training. For companies, learn and earn programs can be a rich source of talent and an opportunity for more seasoned employees to build leadership skills by managing and teaching these new entrants about the work world. Through our own company's programs, we have heard from young people that these experiences can truly change the trajectory of their lives.

To help companies learn more about these three ways to engage young people, Gap Inc. developed a toolkit for employers with the support of McKinsey & Company, Corporate Voices for Working Families, and the Taproot Foundation. Businesses can use this tool to find step-by-step guidance on how to develop a program to support youth. Check out the interactive toolkit on the Opportunity Nation website at

Let's not let the difficult job market rob a generation of young people from having a valuable experience to learn, grow and cross the threshold into adulthood. If your company can give a young person a paying job, great. But if it can't, think about the many other ways your company can help shape their future, and the future competitiveness of your company, your industry, and this nation.

Bobbi Silten is senior vice president, global responsibility at Gap Inc. and president of Gap Foundation. Bobbi is also a member of the White House Council for Community Solutions.