Would you be surprised to know that in the New York City metro area 71 percent of current job openings require a bachelor’s degree or higher, yet only 35 percent of the population has the necessary education to fulfill these openings? This creates a huge “education gap,” which ranks among the highest of all U.S. cities. So what’s being done to address this opportunity divide?

In the New York metro area, like many other locations across the U.S., science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education is key to building a workforce ready to compete in today’s job market. According to data from The Brookings Institution, youth (ages 19-25) who have backgrounds in STEM have much lower rates of unemployment than their counterparts who specialize in other areas.

The YouthSpark Connections event in New York, the 17th in a national series of meetings, brought together local leaders in business, education and government to discuss the emergence of that education gap.  The event sought to alleviate what panelist Jon Schnur of America Achieves indicated often happens when “sometimes we jump to the solution without fully examining the problem.”

The Brookings data revealed the educational gap seems to be widening at the same time that evidence shows that an associates, bachelors or graduate degree can lead to salaries 40%, double and triple that of job seekers with merely a high school diploma.

Schnur acknowledged that the United States used to be #1 in the world in education, but now it has slipped to the middle of the global pack.  “But we’ve actually improved,” he added, “it’s just that others have surpassed us.” 

After the Brookings data was shared to a stunned gathering of nearly 150 people, Wes Moore, host of “Beyond Belief” on the OWN Network was quick to reenergize the room.

“Statistics are so bad that people think there is nothing we can do.  Statistics add context, but human stories motivate action. Today’s youth in many respects do not have long term goals.  They react with short-term motivations, and that usually doesn’t work out well.  Life is much the same way.  You can‘t hit a target without a direction, a goal. If they don’t see it, they’re not reaching it.”

And that’s where programs like Microsoft YouthSpark come in.  Kathryn Wilde, President and CEO of the Partnership for NYC, stressed that the educational community needs a different structure to support employers and students.

Sanoma Joe Tait of Inwood Early College for Health and Information Technologies noted that “it’s important we say to young people that you need to be exposed to lots of options.  Helping young people, and especially young people of color and young female students, is important so that they understand that those STEM opportunities are available, and that technology is a much more available pursuit than perhaps they are led to believe.”

YouthSpark represents a $500 million, three-year commitment to expand education, employment, and entrepreneurial opportunities for 300 million youth worldwide.  A similar event will be held in Philadelphia on April 29. For more information, check out the new YouthSpark Hub.