Closing the Opportunity Gap

This month's release of the Opportunity Nation index highlighted a figure we should all be concerned about: 5.8 million young people ages 16-24, one in every seven, are neither working or in school.
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This month's release of the Opportunity Nation index highlighted a figure we should all be concerned about: 5.8 million young people ages 16-24, one in every seven, are neither working or in school. If we don't do something about this group, affectionately called opportunity youth, their numbers will only increase as the gap between their skills and the skills needed for jobs in our economy expands.

Currently, 22 percent of high school students dropout for only 10 percent of jobs that do not require a high school diploma. Even as we make small gains at getting students to graduate high school, only 41 percent of young people are enrolled in a form of post secondary education.

By 2020, 66 percent of the jobs in the United States are going to require some form of post secondary degree. This means that in the next six years, we will need to graduate an additional 15 million students with skills developed in post-secondary institutions, whether they are four-year, two-year or technical and vocational training programs. We must take the following three steps to ensure our workforce is ready for the 21st century.

First, our education system must be more relevant, so students stay engaged in high school and move on to some form of post-secondary education. Gallup's poll of 500,000 students found the number of engaged students drops from 80 percent in elementary school to 40 percent in high school. I have written previously about a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation poll of high school dropouts where 81 percent of dropouts said, we need to increase "real-world" learning opportunities.

At the United Nations this month, I made the argument that we can increase real-world learning opportunities through career and technical education and prepare all students for success in both school and the work place. The project based learning pedagogy of career and technical education will serve both our highest achieving students and those at risk of dropping out. Students learn to be creative, critical thinkers and collaborators while drawing a direct connection between what they are learning and a job that pays a living wage.

Youth Radio explains the impact in this incredible NPR story about Southwire's partnership with the Carroll County School system to create an electric wire factory that doubles as a school. This type of integrated learning should be a model for school districts across the country.

Second, we must re-engage the 5.8 million opportunity youth by renewing their paths to jobs or education. The business community will play a significant role in achieving this goal. One prominent example is GAP Inc.'s This Way Ahead program.

Gap uses paid internship opportunities in its stores to engage over 1,000 underserved youth in Boston, New York, and San Francisco providing opportunity youth with training in the hard and soft skills necessary for life.

Just like Southwire, while GAP Inc.'s program helps the country, it also helps the bottom line as 75 percent of This Way Ahead interns have been hired as store associates and they have a lower turnover rate than GAP Inc.'s other employees. Other businesses can invest in this model. Youthbuild and Yearup are two examples of the role that governments and non-profits have to play.

Finally, we must build stronger communities to ensure the success of young people from the day they are born. I serve on the Board of Directors of the Forum for Youth Investment an organization that convenes policy makers and community stakeholders to determine a set of goals for the community. From those data driven goals, The Forum develops specific strategies and a plan to measure results leading to stronger more coordinated communities.

One of the most prominent examples is the Forum's work in Nashville, Tennessee where they worked with Mayor Karl Dean, city council members, non-profit leaders and young people to develop a youth master plan for the city. What resulted was a 14-point plan and a blueprint on how private organizations and government can better reach shared goals and coordinate resources. One recent success was a new partnership that brought after school providers and principals to the same table to use concrete data to tailor afterschool programs to meet individual students specific needs.

We have both a significant problem and an opportunity from the 5.8 million young people who are neither enrolled in school or in work. In making the classroom more relevant through career and technical education, engaging employers, and building stronger communities, we can improve economic outcomes for all Americans and close the opportunity gap.