01/22/2013 09:12 am ET Updated Mar 24, 2013

Investing in Youth Can Help Our Economy

A job is one of the most powerful tools for stabilizing a young life and breaking the cycle of poverty. At a time when employment remains an issue of great concern across the nation, the future of young people who are trying so hard to step out on their own is in jeopardy. Today's employment market is more competitive than ever, underscoring the fact that many young adults are left behind, completely disconnected from the training and opportunities needed to compete for even an entry level job. And we know that this problem is growing; every year more than 1 million youth between the ages of 16-24 in communities across the United States drop out of our schools and workforce. The economic implications of this trend are staggering; researchers suggest that the total taxpayer and social burden of America's more than 6.7 million disconnected youth could exceed $6 trillion over their lifetime.

From New York, to Chicago to Los Angeles, community-based organizations are developing innovative solutions to this growing problem. Our team at Taller San Jose, a nonprofit based in Orange County, California is focused on bridging the employment gap for young adults from seriously disadvantaged neighborhoods. Taller San Jose's Founder -- Sister Eileen McNerney, a Catholic nun -- discovered, through her experience of living in an inner city barrio, that employment prospects are even scarcer for the young people who lack confidence, experience, and appropriate adult mentors. She found that these youth do not know how to access traditional systems for education, job-training or employment. Gang involvement, juvenile crime and incarceration, drug use, and early, unplanned pregnancies, combined with the lack of access to community resources, creates a perfect storm that fuels the cycle of poverty.

Often recognized for the extravagant lifestyles of its residents, the center of Orange County projects a different picture. The latest Census figures tell us that there are more than 55,000 youth between the ages of 18-28 living in poverty in Central Orange County. In Santa Ana, the County seat, only 50 percent of the population over age 25 has a high school diploma and over 19% of the city's residents live in poverty, compared with 9.6 percent of Orange County residents.

How does a young person, stuck in this environment, access the resources to effectively turn their life around? We at Taller San Jose try to offer a solution to these "Opportunity Youth" -- undereducated, unskilled and unemployed young people between the ages of 18 and 28 -- who are the future of our local economy. Through a series of job training academies in construction, business administration, and healthcare, Taller San Jose simulates the workforce and gives youth the skills needed to get a job and keep it. Seventeen years of working with more than 4,500 youth has taught us that job skills alone won't make marginalized youth successful employees and students. Training needs to include the appropriate mix of skill development, case management and ongoing links to education and employment. Our county's opportunity youth need to connect with the community in the same way that all of us did as teens -- earn a high school diploma, open a bank account, get a driver's license, learn to navigate the internet, remain crime and drug free, build healthy relationships and engage with the community -- if they hope to transition into contributing members of our society.

A significant number of the young people who enroll in Taller San Jose have a criminal background. The likelihood that these youth will go back to jail is high -- California has the highest recidivism rate in the nation, with more than 70 percent of ex-offenders returning to jail or prison within three years of their release. By contrast, we at Taller San Jose engage our clients for up to 28 months and have found that a steady job with a strong salary proves an effective antidote to criminal activity; only 8 percent of our graduates ever reoffend.

Agencies like Taller San Jose work to tackle the problem of disconnected youth on a systemic level. In California and around the country the idea of social enterprise has taken root, creating employment opportunities for those facing some of the greatest barriers to employment.

Taller San Jose not only doles out hope through its job training programs, but we also give youth real employment opportunities through our social enterprise and general contracting company, Hope Builders, Inc. The enterprise provides a range of remodeling and rehabilitation services for distressed properties and increases mission impact through business-generated revenue. By the end of this year Hope Builders will have employed 15 youth and within three years expects to grow that number to 32 previously unemployed young people.

We know from experience that the challenges young people face in stabilizing their lives are not solved overnight. More than ever, a job has the power to change the path of a young life from one of hopelessness to prosperity. Our job as community leaders, educators and employers is to discern how to best serve these youth, desperate for the opportunity to make something of their lives, while also building the infrastructure to support those needs. To learn how you can support Taller San Jose please visit us at

Christa Sheehan is Taller San Jose's Director of Evaluation and Advancement; Shawna Smith is the Executive Director of Taller San Jose (St. Joseph's Workshop) based in Santa Ana, California.