Providing Opportunities to Those Who Need Them Most

By Veronica Nolan, CEO Urban Alliance

In the fall of 2008, a major donor to Urban Alliance, a program that provides internships and job skills workshops to high school seniors from under-resourced communities, phoned me, the organization's Executive Director (at the time), to inquire whether I knew of any nonprofit that could take on an unpaid intern, specifically his child, a recent college graduate. Not surprisingly, given the state of the economy at that point, I was unable to find a valuable position for the hopeful college grad. While this might not have been the first sign that the economic downturn was having a dramatic impact on families of all socio-economic classes across the country, it was the first "uh-oh" moment that hit close to home for me. I realized if this young person who graduated from a good college could not find a full-time position through his own merit and personal networks, how could Urban Alliance's clients hope to be competitive?

Fortunately, the country has begun to emerge from the economic recession of 2008, but a new and unique challenge has arisen in its wake. According to a report released by McKinsey & Company in 2012, 45% of U.S. employers surveyed said that a lack of skills (in their potential job candidates) is a common reason for entry-level position vacancies. This statistic shows that more than half of employers struggled to fill entry- level positions due to the preparedness of their candidates. This skills gap that exists between what employers need and what hopeful employees bring to the table has become a significant factor contributing to the youth unemployment rate. While completed postsecondary education increases earning potential, according to the same McKinsey report, it unfortunately leaves half of youth unsure that their postsecondary education has improved their chances of finding a job. If completion of a four-year postsecondary degree at a prestigious university isn't ensuring that youth are entering the workforce prepared, what chance do the nation's youth from its most under-resourced communities have?

Securing full-time work has never been more competitive. In order to succeed in the work place, potential employees must possess a sought after combination of formal education and professional skills. A recent study from the Brookings Institution about the economy in Baltimore paints an image that I think is applicable in many regions of the country. The study identified that "[t]he challenge begins with a K-12 education system... that has struggled to keep students in school while not being able to provide those who do attend with the skills they need to move forward after they graduate."

We, at Urban Alliance, believe that our youth need opportunities to build their skills in order to be competitive for the jobs that are available in the 21st century economy. While college is hugely important, (residents without a high school diploma are seven times more likely to be unemployed than those with a college degree), the opportunity to intern, gain real-world work experience, and build a professional network is really what is going to propel our youth out of poverty. At Urban Alliance, our program combines four programmatic elements that we think will level the playing field for under-resourced youth and set them up for a life of academic and professional success -- year-round professional, paid internships; mentoring from an adult professional; case management from an experienced youth development professional; and trainings focused on college and career skills, all of which contribute to transforming students' trajectories. The overarching goal of the organization is to equip youth with the skills necessary for self-sufficiency and to successfully transition to the working world, and Urban Alliance achieves this by helping youth to attain the following objectives: 1) Improve hard and soft job skills, (as defined by internal evaluation tools); 2) Graduate from high school; 3) Attend college or a training program; 4) Identify employment opportunities; and 5) Gain long-term employment experience.

Throughout Urban Alliance's 16-year history, a record of strong outcomes and fantastic stakeholders of all varieties has helped the organization grow from serving youth in one program in one city, to multiple programs in three cities: D.C., Baltimore, and Chicago. While we at Urban Alliance recognize that the problem of youth unemployment, especially among the low-income populations, is not going to be solved by any one intervention, we strive to provide opportunities to youth who need them the most. By teaching the skills necessary to succeed in the workplace, presenting youth with an opportunity for experiential learning through professional internships, and supporting youth as they craft their post-secondary plans, Urban Alliance believes it helps youth to effectively recognize and navigate their path to self-sufficiency.

Urban Alliance is proud to be a participant in the JobRaising Challenge. Should you wish to visit our CrowdRise page, you can do so by clicking here.