By Gerald Chertavian, CEO of Year Up

Jessica Vides had a common story. A few years ago, she dropped out of high school – not because of laziness or lack of ambition, but because her family was going through a crisis and, though still a teenager herself, she needed to help take care of her sister’s children. In time, she was an unemployed high school dropout, with few career prospects and responsibilities that hadn’t gone away.

That’s when Jessica’s story changed direction. She enrolled in and completed a GED program, and a counselor there encouraged her to apply to Year Up Puget Sound. She spent her first weeks with us learning how to use Microsoft Office, before acquiring a comprehensive background in IT, while also gaining competencies in how to dress for, communicate in, and navigate through a corporate environment. After six months of intensive training, she embarked on a six month internship with DreamBox Learning, where her intelligence and motivation were on full display. Following her internship, she was hired as a Client Care Specialist. She’s still there today, actively contributing to DreamBox’s bottom line and its mission to close the Achievement Gap in America’s schools.

The 21st century workforce has arrived, and contrary to public perception, the most talented workers often have stories like Jessica’s. Most young Americans are trying to navigate school and work while shouldering responsibilities at home, but are faced with the worst employment prospects on record for young adults and shockingly low community college completion rates. They’re smart, motivated, and perseverant; all they need is an opportunity to learn marketable skills and then prove themselves in the workplace. Most employers and policymakers, though, don’t know just how much they’re capable of achieving.

That’s what today’s Walk for Opportunity is all about. In eight of Year Up’s cities, 2,000 students, staff and supporters are walking, rallying, advocating – and in Puget Sound, flash mobbing – to call the public’s attention to the talent that lives in our urban neighborhoods. Our alumni are continually proving that they are EPIC: Empowered, Professional, In-demand by employers, and Career-ready. 84% of Year Up’s alumni are employed or in college full-time within four months of graduation, and those who are working earn an average of $15/hour (about $30,000/year for salaried employees). Those students on the street today are not looking for pity or charity. Quite literally, they’re looking for Opportunity, not only for themselves but for the 6.7 million young adults in this country who are out of school and out of work.

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Year Up’s Seattle chapter turned their Walk for Opportunity into a flash mob at Westlake Plaza in downtown Seattle.

The Opportunity Divide that traps so many young people in poverty isn’t just hurting them. As a society, we are losing out on the collective talent of millions of people, and are paying a heavy price. Over the course of their lifetime, this cohort will cost taxpayers $1.15 trillion through expenditures and lost revenue, if we fail to reconnect them to career pathways.

Companies, too, are especially suffering from the Opportunity Divide. There were 3.9 million job openings that employers were unable to fill last month, a large proportion of which are middle-skills jobs, and they’re facing a structural shortage of millions of middle-skilled workers over the next decade. This inability to fill job openings in a time of high unemployment bodes ill for our ability to compete globally – both for companies and our economy as a whole – in the years to come.

Many of America’s leading employers are shifting their practices, and widening their lens beyond “traditional” sources of talent, to meet the challenge. In fact, more than 250 companies – firms like Microsoft, LinkedIn, and JP Morgan Chase – invest in Year Up’s students. For most of our corporate partners, this is not philanthropy; it’s a business partnership they use to meet very real needs by gaining immediate access to a steady pipeline of dedicated, skilled employees (with low turnover) for hard-to-fill jobs, as well as to increase diversity and meet a commitment to serving the community.

It’s also a long-term investment, fueled by the recognition that the next generation of skilled talent often has a story like Jessica’s – the same shift in perception that our students are rallying for today. They understand that if companies want access to the employees that will fuel our economic growth in the decades to come, they need to invest in young people and the programs that prepare them to contribute. If they want to thrive, they need to recognize talent.