10/13/2014 11:21 am ET Updated Dec 13, 2014

Youth Can't Invest in Their Future Without Help Early On

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Most Americans will agree that the youth unemployment rate -- currently over 14 percent for 16- to 24-year-olds, not including underemployment -- is too high. It's much harder to find consensus, however, on the reasons why many young people aren't finding sustainable work.

Today, these youth are called 'millennials,' a term that is often associated with being lazy, unmotivated, and unwilling to take the steps necessary to find jobs.

This view is not only callous, but unreflective of the job market. The 21st-century world is much more challenging to navigate and much less forgiving of mistakes. Technological innovations that brought us high-speed Internet and smartphones have also increased automation and exponentially increased competition from foreign workers.

The issue many young people face is not a lack of motivation, but a lack of adequate career guidance at an early enough stage in their development -- and a critical societal failure to provide it. In today's highly competitive hiring environment, it is crucial that students receive not just academic knowledge during their education process, but also training in essential work-related competencies, such as long-term career planning, workplace navigation, and other "soft" skills.

As a nonprofit project manager with expertise in workforce development strategies, part of my job involves interviewing low-income high school and college students about their job goals. Here's just a sample of what I've heard:

"I was thinking about becoming a scientist. I love learning about the universe."

"I'm planning on owning my own art gallery. I've been an artist since I was four years old, and art is my passion."

"I want to be a registered nurse for older people. I like caring for them and helping them."

These hardly seem like the responses of people who are honestly unmotivated to find work. Yet, few of the students I speak to have a clear path planned out beyond "getting into college." As a report from McKinsey & Co. and Chegg points out, college alone isn't enough to guarantee career success. Nearly half of college graduates surveyed said they're currently in a job that doesn't require a college degree.

Similarly, very few students I speak to mention apprenticeships or internships, even though employers are increasingly valuing experience over academics. Many students find out too late that they didn't study the right subject or get the right experience, and cannot make a career change without enormous expense.

This situation is clearly not a failure of motivation, but a failure of informed planning: Too many youth lack the knowledge, career planning skills, and supportive environment to help them understand the link between education choices and employment options. As a White House report recently found, low-income youth often cannot turn to their parents or peers for advice on higher education or future careers, as many low-income parents lack the experience with strategic career development to be able to transfer this knowledge to their children.

Many young adults also look to schools to provide career advice, but educators and administrators are often overloaded with students and responsibilities. As U.S. News & World Report shared last year, each American school counselor is responsible, on average, for advising 471 students. In California, the average counselor advises upwards of 1,000 students each.

The high school years are already emotionally and academically challenging for youth. Without a solid base of family support or professional role models, is it reasonable to expect youth to just "figure out" their career path on their own?

In short, the onus falls on us as a society to provide this basic career guidance to young people, giving them the tools they need to build a successful career.

This responsibility may seem daunting, and the necessary systemic reforms can be slow to happen. However, even one-on-one mentoring can make a huge difference. One student I met, whose siblings dropped out of high school, is on track to graduate largely because of a school counselor who mentors her. She told me:

"I actually meet with her pretty much every day. She helped me with my classes, because I learned college is a lot different than I thought. When you go to college, you sit there and listen, and pay attention a lot to actually get the work done."

I encourage everyone to consider becoming a youth mentor - for a family member, neighbor, or even a 'buddy' via a volunteering program - and open an alternative pathway to learning and success for a young person. These types of mentoring programs have generally been shown to improve youth outcomes across "behavioral, social, academic, and emotional domains." In my free time, I volunteer with a fantastic program called SMART, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that helps low-income middle school students access high-quality education and mentoring resources. There are thousands of similar programs operating nationwide, such as College Track and MentorNet, which rely on volunteer help to survive. Rather than blaming unemployment on "millennial culture," we can take change into our own hands, helping one young adult at a time improve their financial and professional future.

National Mentoring Resources:

Big Brothers Big Sisters of America

College Track


National Mentoring Partnership

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The Close It Summit, in conjunction with the Close It Summit (October 26-28, 2014, in Washington, D.C.). The series will address issues critical to building new pathways from education to employment for young adults, veterans, transitioning workers, low-skilled workers and recent graduates. To learn more about the summit, read here.