05/07/2013 05:32 pm ET Updated Jul 07, 2013

Recognize Talent

Tomorrow, thousands of Year Up students and staff in eight of our cities will take part in our annual Walk for Opportunity. They are rallying to raise public awareness about the massive pool of untapped talent that our young adults represent, and the economic necessity of closing the Opportunity Divide. They are not looking for pity or charity - they are looking for the public and employers to recognize talent in every form.

When Martin Luther King gave his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech fifty years ago this summer, he did so at an event titled "The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." Dr. King and other leaders saw economic opportunity and self-sufficiency as an essential element of human freedom and the American promise. They also understood that businesses, and all Americans, suffered when the collective talents and purchasing power of an entire cohort of Americans - not only African-Americans, but people of all races from disadvantaged backgrounds - went largely unrecognized.

Indeed, employers may be suffering from the Opportunity Divide more than ever before. In 2011, more than 30% of US employers had vacancies open for more than six months as they struggled to find qualified applicants, even in a time of high unemployment. There are good, family-supporting, middle-skills jobs being created in the 21st century economy, but not enough middle-skilled applicants to fill them.

Meanwhile, 6.7 million young Americans are out of school and out of work. Each of them costs taxpayers an average of $14,000 every year in social expenses and lost revenues for every year that they remain disconnected from career pathways. Public perception says that investing in training for an undereducated, underemployed young adult has low returns, but these are smart, talented, and perseverant people, with enormous potential to offer employers.

Year Up's students and alumni are living proof. We partner with more than 250 leading employers - smart, innovative companies like Microsoft, UBS, and State Street - to provide a steady pipeline of diverse, skilled talent for high-demand positions. Talent like Jay Hammonds, who left college after one year due to financial constraints, and set his sights on securing a part-time job at Safeway before he found our program. Jay did his Year Up internship at Facebook and is still there today as an Executive Support Technician, working closely with the company's leadership on a daily basis. In fact, 84% of our alumni are working full-time or in school within four months of graduation, and those who are working earn an average of $15/hour ($30,000/year for salaried employees), more than twice the federal minimum wage. With access to training and corporate networks, our students are EPIC: Empowered, Professional, In-demand by employers, and Career-ready.

If we shifted our perceptions to see talent like Jay's in the face of every young adult struggling to pay for college or find a job, we would find the human capital to start filling millions of vacancies in this country and help our businesses to grow. That's what Dr. King explained so well - that all of our freedom and economic wellbeing is tied to that of each other. That's what our students are walking for tomorrow.

Many of my readers here won't be able to leave work tomorrow to join us at a local Walk, but they won't need to in order to take part. They can join us on Twitter to show their support and understanding. More importantly, they can push their own companies to recognize talent, by removing four-year degree requirements for middle-skills jobs, offering internships and mentoring to young people, and investing in young employees.

Closing the Opportunity Divide is one of the major movements of our time, but it's not just happening on the street. It's happening in board rooms and offices around the country, as more and more employers lean into the future and understand the economic need to shift their perceptions and hiring practices. Fifty years on, we're still fighting to extend the freedom of opportunity to all Americans. More than ever, we can't afford not to.