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Commentary: Why We Can’t Afford to Overlook Our Low-Income Youth

There are more than six million young adults in this country who are disconnected from stable career pathways, called opportunity youth. At the same time, there are 4 million vacant jobs, and employers consistently report an inability to find skilled, reliable talent.

This Opportunity Divide – the gap between companies in search of talent and young people in search of careers – is real and growing. That’s why more than 250 corporate partners host Year Up interns, contributing over $22,000 for each one. For these companies, our students represent a viable pipeline of talent at a time of fierce competition for loyal, motivated, and skilled employees.

What Motivated Me to Start Year Up

After college, I moved to New York to pursue my dreams of working on Wall Street, thanks in large part to my sister-in-law’s old boss, Doug George, who gave me a shot in a training program at Chemical Bank. I joined the Big Brothers program and was matched with a 12-year-old boy, David Heredia, who lived on the Lower East Side.

The city was very different back then; the Lower East Side was called the most photographed crime scene in the country. I can distinctly remember stepping over crack vials on my way into David’s apartment building, and being genuinely scared on my first visit. Here I was, less than one mile from my Wall Street office, stepping into a wholly different world.

The people who lived in that world had been written off by our country as social liabilities, but I quickly discovered that David and many of his neighbors were just as bright as the bankers I was launching my career with. At a time when our country couldn’t afford to squander any talent, we were overlooking the enormous human potential in places like David’s neighborhood. I’d had a hand up from Doug, and I realized that the lack of a similar opportunity was the biggest thing that kept David’s neighbors from being seen as the economic assets they truly were.

That lesson stuck with me. I eventually wrote my application essay to Harvard Business School about starting a program to connect overlooked urban talent with mainstream companies, and I never let go of that idea. When I was lucky enough to find myself in a position to do so in 2000, I turned the idea into Year Up.

How I Hope Our Work Moves Things Forward

Year Up’s students are not looking for charity or pity. What they’re looking for is an opportunity; once they get it, they shine. 85% of year up students are employed or in college full-time within four months of graduating from our program, and those who are working earn an average of $15/hour (or $30,000/year for salaried employees), more than twice the federal minimum wage.

My hope is that by empowering our students to prove themselves in the marketplace, we can help shift the public perceptions, employer practices, and public policies that perpetuate the Opportunity Divide. For our country to remain competitive in a global economy, we simply can’t afford to write off more than 15% of the population. One day, all low-income young adults in this country will have access to meaningful employment pathways that lead to family-sustaining careers – and all companies will know about this pool of talent and look to hire them.

Where We Need to Go

If we want to close the Opportunity Divide in our lifetimes, we know we need to figure out ways to scale our program – and more importantly,scale our impact – far more dramatically.

In 2011, we embarked on a period of research and development to identify more cost-effective ways to scale. To date, we have programs – called the Professional Training Corps – operating on community college campuses in three cities, and are actively working to identify and pilot other alternative models as well. We hope to identify a way to rapidly scale up to directly serve 100,000 students annually over a ten year period.

In addition, as mentioned above, we are constantly seeking to shift the perceptions, practices and policies that perpetuate the Opportunity Divide. Year Up is not and never will be a silver bullet solution for all young people and all employers, but by helping our country to see all of our opportunity youth as the economic assets they are, we hope to greatly expand opportunity for many more young people than we will ever directly serve ourselves. For example, we are currently working with several partners to catalyze an employer-led movement to expand opportunity for young adults, through internships, mentoring, hiring and training initiatives, all of which will help companies look beyond degrees as a single starting point for employment.

The Most Rewarding Part of My Work

Each of the more than 9,000 students we have served to date has been a reward unto themselves. Nothing has been more rewarding than hearing from alumni about buying their first homes, getting their first big promotions, or taking pride in their honor roll children. Our students are incredibly strong role models for their families and communities, and leaders in the movement to close the Opportunity Divide. Being able to serve witness as they launch their careers and change this country is an honor beyond any other.

This piece was originally posted on MariaShriver.com.