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Reconnecting Young People with a Bright Future

A student once drew me a picture with the caption, “If I grow up, I want to be a fireman.” When I visited Ferguson, Mo., after Michael Brown’s tragic death, a young woman told me, “I consider it a blessing to have made it to age 16.”

I have traveled to every state and visited many neighborhoods struggling to rise above poverty, inequality, and violence. I’ve been stunned by how many youth are disconnected from caring adults, welcoming schools, social services, and a steady job with a living wage. Some are almost completely cut off from the institutions that should guide them on the path to adulthood.

Too Many Young People are Disconnected

All young people — no matter where they grow up — need havens of hope and safety. They need skills to succeed in society and the workplace. They need positive adult role models, mentors, support and structure, as well as clear pathways to a bright future.

Yet today, roughly 5.8 million young people in the U.S. are neither in school nor working. The unemployment rate for 16-to-24-year-olds is twice the national average for adults — and more than three times that average for 16-to-19-year-olds. Young men face the toughest odds.

At the same time, millions of jobs go unfilled, and some businesses can’t expand because employers can’t find workers with necessary skills. As of this April, there were 5.4 million job openings in the U.S. That same month, 8.7 million Americans were seeking work.

The longer this problem persists, the further young people will fall through the cracks, and the harder it will be for them to secure good jobs that promote ladders to the middle class and a prosperous, productive economy.

It’s Time to Re-engage Our Youth

To re-engage young people with their families and communities, work, education and training, we need a new way of thinking, and the solutions must involve everyone — our schools, colleges and training programs, businesses, community groups and local governments.

Good programs and policies have existed for decades, but not with the scale or systemic approach to solve the problem. And the U.S. isn’t alone in facing this challenge; young people around the world are struggling. But our neighbors in the European Union might have one promising answer.

The European Youth Guarantee tackles youth unemployment by pooling public and private resources in one support network. Participating countries commit to connect all young people under 25 with real, high-quality offers for a job, apprenticeship, training, or further education within four months after leaving formal schooling or becoming unemployed. Early results are promising.

Some U.S. school districts have made similar commitments related to high school graduation, college entry, and college completion. California’s Long Beach College Promise, for instance, unites public schools, community colleges, the state university and the Mayor’s office to help students earn degrees and certificates in preparation for rewarding careers and lives.

And President Obama and I have visited partnerships like P-TECH, in New York City, where high-tech companies help support the high school curriculum, collaborate with teachers, and provide students with internships, supportive mentors, and guaranteed hiring preferences for graduates.

We can also learn from countries, like Germany, with clear policies to help youth transition to adulthood. They’ve kept youth unemployment low, even in tough financial times, and in regions with the biggest challenges. Businesses like Southwire Cable are proving this approach benefits U.S. companies, communities, and youth — and not just in big cities, but in places like rural Georgia.

We Need an All-Hands-On-Deck Effort

It’s encouraging to see the private sector showing active leadership, by working with secondary and postsecondary institutions, nonprofit service providers and philanthropic organizations to create large-scale, systemic pathways to education and employment for America’s young people. The employer- and foundation-led “Grads of Life” awareness campaign, launched last year to redefine how companies think about and connect with this population, and Starbucks’ recent announcement that it will team with more than a dozen companies to hire 100,000 mostly low-income, 16-to-24-year-olds as apprentices, interns and part- and full-time employees by 2018, are two more examples of ways to meet the challenge.

We need to complement these important efforts with robust federal support. Lawmakers in Washington often talk up the need to strengthen the economy and build a highly-trained, competitive U.S. workforce. So far, though, Fiscal Year 2016 spending plans in the Republican-led Congress undermine those statements.

Six years after the Great Recession, the President’s policies and the hard work of the American people have brought our economy back further and faster than almost any other nation. But better days still haven’t arrived for many families and communities. And young people are among the most affected.

If Congress fails to roll back harmful sequestration-level budget caps — opting instead to cut spending on education and training programs that help grow our economy, create jobs, and retool our workforce — that could deal a severe blow to the nation’s recovery. Congress must continue to invest in America’s current and future workforce.

The Obama administration has invested in community colleges and worked to reinvent career and technical education for today’s realities. And, we’re giving state, local, and tribal governments flexibility to align funds for disconnected youth across federal agencies and programs. But we can all do more.

If we care about our country’s future, we must work together — at the local, state and federal levels — to reconnect all young people with the education and career pathways that lead away from poverty, desperation and violence and toward a renewed sense of community, stability, and success.

Now it’s your turn to weigh in and highlight success. Share with us how people and organizations are helping reconnect youth in your community. We want to hear what’s working and to share examples with communities across the country. To do what’s right for our young people, we have no time to lose.