01/22/2013 09:13 am ET Updated Mar 24, 2013

The Opportunity Divide

We are at a tipping point in this country. The corporate sector is facing widespread baby boomer retirement and is concerned about a severe shortage of skilled labor. Ironically, at a time of record unemployment, roughly 3.7 million jobs go unfilled in this country for lack of qualified candidates. This talent shortage, or so called skills gap, is only expected to increase, according to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with 14 million skilled jobs becoming available over the next decade. If companies are to meet the mounting pressure to fill skilled labor positions, they must find innovative pipelines to recruit a new generation of entry-level talent.

At the same time, 6.7 million young adults in this country have been ignored and forgotten, largely written off as social liabilities instead of recognized as economic assets. These young adults, between the ages 16 to 24, are disconnected -- not enrolled in school and chronically unemployed or underemployed. But they have a lot of talent and motivation, and a lot to contribute to our economy. They stand to benefit the most from higher education and career opportunities but, facing barriers like poverty, inadequate education, lack of guidance, and lack of meaningful employment opportunities, find it hardest to do so.

At Year Up, we call this the Opportunity Divide, and we exist to empower young adults to cross it.

We admit hundreds of young adults every year who are eager to show that they have what it takes. These young adults start life abundantly rich in what social workers call "risk factors." Several have some sort of financial hardship -- low income, lack of medical insurance, scant or no resources for college or job training. Others have significant challenges at home: they are homeless or transient, have been in foster care, act as the primary caregiver for other family members at a very young age, or are confronting some other sort of family crisis -- drug abuse, domestic violence. Some are already parents, struggling with limited resources and child-care issues. Most have been severely shortchanged by substandard or "failing" public schools.

And yet, time and again, these young people succeed. After some training, our students earn internships at America's top companies, including JPMorgan Chase, Google, and LinkedIn, and over 90 percent of them meet or exceed their managers' expectations. 85 percent of them are employed or attending school full-time within 4 months of completing the program. It's their talent and drive that leads to their success; and it's their success that leads us to know that the Opportunity Divide can be closed.

Over the past decade, Year Up has served over 6,000 students and will continue to serve about 1,900 students annually across our 10 sites. But it's not enough. We know it's not enough if we want all 6.7 million disconnected youth to achieve their potential and finally close the Opportunity Divide. So we're expanding into cities, creating college partnerships, and working with Fortune 1000 companies. And we're asking for your help. For more information, please visit our CrowdRise fundraising page.

Our vision is that one day every urban young adult will have access to the education, experience, and guidance required to reach his or her potential. It's the right thing for our young adults, for our businesses, and our society as a whole.