Commentary: A helping hand for our young people

April 7, 2013

In the past 20 years, our region has transformed into one of the nation’s most desirable places to work and live. But there’s a threat on the horizon, and it has nothing to do with sequestration. Long-term, one of the biggest challenges to our economic health is our local workforce.

In the coming decades we will need to fill a million new jobs, while replacing two million positions vacated by retiring baby boomers. Most growth is coming in health care, education, high tech and finance — fields requiring an educated, highly-trained workforce.

Will our next-generation workforce be ready to meet these challenges?

Venture Philanthropy Partner’s recent report, “Capital Kids: Shared Responsibility, Shared Future,” on the state of children in the national capital region, identified some troubling trends affecting worker readiness:

Poverty remains the biggest issue. Children growing up poor are at higher risk for health issues, low school achievement, drugs, teen pregnancy and crime. In sections of the District, child poverty rates are worse than in Mexico. Even our most affluent suburbs are seeing double-digit increases.

Our young men, particularly African Americans, continue to struggle in basic reading and math skills.

Forty-one percent of kids under age 18 in this region have at least one immigrant parent, and limited English skills make them less likely to graduate, attend college or qualify for high-skilled jobs.

More alarming is the rising number of young people who have dropped out of the system. Regionally, 14,000 youths ages 16-19 are not in school or working. Over their lifetime, they will cost us an estimated $13 billion in lost earnings, lower tax revenue and higher social service spending. What’s harder to cost out is the lost potential of a young person who lacks the skills to get a career-track job, failing to break free of the poverty cycle.

But what if those young people were given a chance for a different life,to become economic assets instead of social liabilities?

In a region that needs to find three million new, highly trained workers in the next 20-plus years, we need to think of these young people as 14,000 new opportunities who, if given the chance, can contribute to our tax base and economic well-being.

Capital One, Clark Construction, Pepco, BET, Hilton and Kaiser Permanente are among companies recognizing this, and are partnering with nonprofits such as Urban Alliance and Year Up to provide business training and internship opportunities that are leading to sharply higher rates of high school graduation and college attendance among kids from some of our most troubled neighborhoods.

Companies such as Bank of America and the federal government are revisiting traditional hiring rules that lock out potentially qualified candidates simply because they don’t have a four-year college degree. With three million jobs to fill, why not instead assess skills and workforce readiness credentials?

Stop and think for a moment about whether your organization could create internship opportunities or rethink HR policies blocking promising young people from career success.

Helping our region’s future employee base — the young people who live here today — get ready to fill the jobs of tomorrow is just common sense. Our children need a hand up, not a handout. It’s in all our best interests to help them get one.

Carol Thompson Cole, a former D.C. city administrator and vice president of RJR Nabisco, is president and chief executive of Venture Philanthropy Partners, a philanthropic investment group that has raised $90 million over its 13-year history to assist local nonprofits serving low-income young people.

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