09/14/2012 11:29 am ET Updated Nov 14, 2012

The Road to Youth Employment

The challenges that stand before young people as they emerge into a weak employment market have been well-documented. Perhaps less attention has been paid, however, to the uphill battle that young people without a high school degree or GED face in finding career-track work or even entry-level employment that might lead to more sustainable employment.

We all know the importance of early work experience. That first job, those first interactions with peers and colleagues in a professional environment, not only serves as a source of income but also contributes to self-esteem, provides a structured learning experience, helps build social skills, and better enables young people to make positive transitions into adulthood and become productive members of their communities.

Landing that first, game-changing job opportunity, however, can be something of a chicken-versus-egg proposition. "Youth disconnection" is a term used to describe young people who have disengaged from work or school for lengthy periods of time during the critical transition from adolescence to adulthood, and New York City is not immune to this unfortunate phenomenon. Indeed, one in five young New Yorkers is both out of school and out of work, with 60,000 unemployed but looking, and another 160,000 having dropped out of the job market altogether. The problem of disconnected youth is even more acute among minority communities, with fully half of all African-American and Hispanic youth in NYC unemployed or out of the labor force.

In this time of economic uncertainty and budgeting controversy, the Y continues to be one of New York City's leading youth employers. We currently employ more than 1,800 youth staff between the ages of 14 and 24, working mostly in citywide camps and after school programs. Through the YMCA's Youth Work Readiness Programs we impart invaluable job skills, instill good work habits, and prepare younger workers for a lifetime of career success. Meanwhile, the Y's Teen Career Connection program was created in 2004 to provide real-life, hands-on, eight-week summer session work experience to teenagers who would not normally have the resources to find professional placement in some of NYs most prominent companies.

Expanding our youth employment preparedness mandate, later this year the Y will launch Y Roads, a new integrated set of programs and services that is designed to put young people who are not employed or in school on a path to achievement. Following the lead of Mayor Bloomberg's Young Men's Initiative, the program works through a new center-based model that builds on the Y's counseling and leadership development strengths. A mix of integrated services at each Y Roads center will provide counseling, skills training, academic support, and employment opportunities for the city's most disengaged teens and young adults. Through the program the Y aims to provide employment assist 5,000 young people, ages 16-to-25, between 2012-2014.

Both the challenge and the opportunity surrounding youth unemployment is that these very personal crises collectively add up to a series of local emergencies. No statewide government initiative, federal stimulus funding, corporate internship, or community-based program alone will do the trick. Only by working together -- through the combined strength of programs like Mayor Bloomberg's, the support of corporations in the form of youth training and internship programs, and community-based job preparedness initiatives like Y Roads -- can we begin to tackle a problem of this scale. When the stakes are this high, that responsibility is one in which we all share.