10/02/2012 10:21 am ET Updated Dec 02, 2012

Ad Campaigns Foster Timely Debate About Young Adult Unemployment

In recent weeks, two advertising campaigns have been launched focusing on the high unemployment rate among young adults. One, for United Colors of Benetton, is its provocative and controversial "Unemployee of the Year" campaign, highlighting the societal contributions of so-called "NEETs," 18- to 30-year-olds who are "Not in Education, Employment or Training." The second is the more traditional "Let's Get to Work" campaign from the University of Phoenix, which notes that 3.7 million jobs are unfilled in the United States due to a "skills gap" between our current workforce and emerging career fields.

While some may not agree with the advertisers' messages, they should be lauded for raising awareness of an issue that doesn't always get the attention it deserves. In truth, the U.S. is facing historically high unemployment of more than 12 percent for adults between the ages of 18 and 29, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. One could reasonably argue that the problem shouldn't be celebrated, even in the ironically "hip" way used by Benetton, nor should it be turned into a tagline. But given how little debate there is about the issue in general media, ignoring the problem altogether is considerably worse.

There are many factors contributing to high unemployment among our traditionally most productive members of the workforce. They fall into two main categories: cyclical and structural. The cyclical is the result of a weak housing market, lackluster consumer demand and high debt weighing on new job creation. The structural speaks to a lack of alignment between the skills our workforce has and the skills employers need most. How the cyclical plays out depends on market forces and policymakers. The structural may be addressed through education.

Whether young people realize it or not, we are in an entrepreneurial world. Small businesses are the leading job creators in the country and even larger companies want employees with entrepreneurial mindsets. It is important to begin teaching young people the tenets of entrepreneurship, even if they never start a business. They need to understand the value of solving problems and creating their own opportunities, instead of hoping for someone to come along and drop an opportunity into their laps.

Education is an investment and our young people need to be educated investors. They need to become financially literate and understand the possible return they will see by a chosen career path. There are some careers that can provide a $100,000 return on investment in student loans for a private university degree and some that can't. There are some careers that make more economic sense with in-state tuition at public universities or community colleges and some that require technical certifications through a career and technical schools. The important thing is that we give our young people this understanding before they embark on post-secondary education, not after the fact when they have to defer and possibly default on student loan payments.

Finally, it's important that we teach our young people that education is a lifelong process. The skills you use today may not be marketable tomorrow. They need to "learn how to learn" so that they can acquire those future skills for jobs that we can't even imagine today. Workforce readiness doesn't end the day you receive a degree or certification. It's an ongoing process.

There are many perspectives to be added to this debate and it is an important debate to have. I am hopeful that the efforts of the "Mad Men" of Madison Avenue will spark a deeper discussion of this issue as a result of these most recent ad campaigns. A much deeper exploration, hopefully, than a 30-second commercial on TV.