Jobs for youth have always been a challenge, and the recession has made this worse. According to the Department of Labor, 25% of all unemployed individuals are under the age of 25 and the number of employed teens has declined by 23% in recent years. Less than 14% of low income teens currently hold a legitimate job. Traditional strategies have failed to adequately address the problem.
We need a “stimulus program” for youth. This effort should not originate in the public sector; instead, the business community should take the lead. This might not at first glance seem like an audacious idea, since most jobs programs looks to the private sector for placements. But I challenge corporate leaders to become lead partners in a comprehensive youth jobs program, with government funding and nonprofit expertise playing important, but secondary, roles.
Traditional jobs programs are often dependent on subsidies. Nonprofits place youth with an employer and pay most or all of their wages with grant funds. Once the subsidy ends, however, so does the job. The youth can do everything right but still find themselves without long term employment. Yet without the subsidy, many businesses are not willing or able to hire a young person.
First, we must stop asking businesses to provide jobs for teens as a charitable gesture to support “at-risk” youth. Employment must be viewed as a coordinated economic development strategy to ensure our most valuable human capital will develop to their full potential. We must create a public/private partnership that offers “win-win” outcomes for businesses that need a motivated and more culturally diverse workforce and youth who need sustainable jobs.
Public sector funds could be granted directly to private employers, subsidizing wages for up to a year, mitigating economic impact. Ideally, participating companies could be eligible for tax breaks. In turn, employers would commit to retaining nonprofit partners to recruit, train and support a cadre of youth applicants. The employer would provide industry specific training and career counseling, designed to lead to long-term employment in their industry. If the youth meets reasonable performance standards, unsubsidized employment would be guaranteed for at least an additional year. For college-bound students, companies could provide college stipends, summer employment and a full-time job following graduation. It would require a new approach to the problem, but the upside for everyone would be worth the effort.