By Joanne Harrell, Senior Director, U.S. Citizenship & Public Affairs

On September 20, 2012 our CEO, Steve Ballmer launched the companywide initiative Microsoft YouthSpark, which aims to create opportunities for 300 million youth around the world in three years by connecting them with greater opportunities for education, employment and entrepreneurship.

Since then, I’ve met with community leaders, educators, and students in cities around the country to highlight the YouthSpark programs designed to close the opportunity divide facing young people in America and around the world. In each American city, I talked to young people to understand how this opportunity divide had impacted them. And every person I met with told me the same thing: the private sector plays a critical role in helping us reach our educational and career goals.

Brookings Institution Finds Growing Opportunity Divide

An opportunity divide exists for young people worldwide. According to the International Youth Foundation, 75 million young people were unemployed in 2011. But what about the U.S. and our major cities?

We partnered with the Brookings Institution to answer this question in 10 cities around the country. The Brookings data confirmed: young people face a widening opportunity gap and lack the skills needed to join the fast-growing and lucrative technology industry. In some cities, the data was quite stark.

  • In Chicago, nearly half of area youth ages 16-22 have no more than a high school diploma, are unemployed or not in the workforce. 22 percent have no more than a high school diploma or are not enrolled in school.
  • More than two thirds of San Francisco’s most highly educated residents are from outside of California. This means San Francisco-area companies must go out of the area to get talent rather than finding it among local students.
  • In Washington DC, the white and Asian populations are twice as likely to have college degrees as their African-American and Latino counterparts.

The research also found that in most large urban areas, youth are not progressing in their educational attainment, especially in the critical areas the current workforce demands. The findings indicate we must connect our youth to science, technology, engineering and mathematics to bridge the opportunity gap.

Connecting the Community with YouthSpark

There is a path forward to bridge the opportunity divide. Starting in January, we brought together non-profits, local government officials, and business leaders in ten metropolitan areas to share the Brookings research and how the Microsoft YouthSpark programs can help our young people.

In Charlotte, Mayor Anthony Foxx welcomed attendees and expressed his excitement that YouthSpark will be available to Charlotte-area youth. At the event, I got to meet DigiGirlz graduate Aisha Davis and hear how the program inspired her to pursue a career in computer science. I’m excited to share that Aisha will be joining Microsoft as a full-time employee this summer.

Mayor Anthony Foxx addresses the Charlotte YouthSpark event attendees

San Francisco’s District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim highlighted why public/private partnerships are important to the future of youth, while Mayor Ed Lee shared insights via Twitter and Facebook to encourage community awareness and participation. Simone Mackey, who graduated from a Year Up program with Microsoft certifications and currently works as a desktop technician, told us how YouthSpark has made a difference in her life.

In Atlanta, I met LaDarrius White, a YouthSpark student panelist and MACH (Microsoft Academy for College Hires) hire. He did a fantastic job encouraging other young people to pursue careers in technology.

   

Pictured from left to right: LaDarrius White, Aisha Davis and Simone Mackey

Houston YouthSpark panelists

Other prominent public figures shared personal stories to inspire local youth. Actress and education advocate Tichina Arnold supported Charlotte’s event, author Wes Moore met with students in Atlanta to talk about his experiences, and in Houston Bonnie Dunbar highlighted how her interest in science and math led to a 25 year career as an astronaut.

YouthSpark event in Atlanta, featuring student participants and youth advocate Wes Moore

I have witnessed the early results YouthSpark programs are having on young people. Microsoft’s strong partnerships with governments, nonprofit organizations, and businesses empower youth to realize their full potential by connecting them to greater opportunities for education, employment, and entrepreneurship. We know that when the community engages, we accelerate success. With the right programs and people in place we can make a real difference for our future leaders. I invite you to learn more about YouthSpark and how you can get involved here.