OP-ED: National service as one solution to jobs crisis

January 7

I have worked with hundreds of young adults in my six years at City Year Washington and I have watched them grow as they give a year of service in urban schools. They come to make a difference in the lives of others. Often, they leave with a job.

Last year, our 156 AmeriCorps members served in some of DC’s highest-need public schools. Working in partnership with teachers and school administrators, they help improve students’ attendance, behavior and course performance. Our corps members provide an amazing, selfless service that changes the lives of those they serve. But what I see every June when they graduate from our program is that the help they have given others more often than not helps them land their next job.

A report published last year by the Corporation for National and Community Service supports this observation. The report quantifies what professionals in the nonprofit field have long known: volunteering can help young people secure full-time employment. The research study found that unemployed individuals who volunteer over the course of a year are 27 percent more likely to be employed by the end of the year than those who do not volunteer. This distinction is even more significant for individuals without high school diplomas. By engaging in volunteerism, unemployed individuals without high school diplomas increase their odds of employment by an astounding 51 percent.

Volunteering is not just good for the soul. It is good for our collective pocket book. Remember that as you consider recent job figures: In November, the unemployment rate for workers under the age of 25 was 14 percent, which is double the national unemployment rate of approximately seven percent. There are now an estimated 10 million people under the age of 25 who are unable to find work, threatening their ability to provide for a family, own a home and save for retirement. These figures have the potential to stunt the nation’s economic progress for years to come. A report by America’s Promise Alliance and Civic Enterprises estimated that, in 2011, unemployed and out-of-school youth ages 16-24 cost taxpayers $1.6 trillion in welfare, social supports, health care and crime costs. Many of these public expenses can be avoided by investing in proactive, cost-effective solutions to unemployment.

At City Year, our corps members are part of a network of 80,000 AmeriCorps members who are giving a year of intensive service at nonprofits, schools and community organizations across the country. Given what we know about the relationship between volunteering and employment, AmeriCorps programs represent an efficient tool to tackle high unemployment and growing poverty among young Americans. And because these programs already exist, expanding them wouldn’t require passing new legislation – rather, simply funding an existing program. There is no new wheel to invent. By including national service in a jobs package, we can create thousands of new service opportunities that will help young people lay the foundation for their careers and boost the ability of nonprofits to deliver key social services to communities and individuals in need.

At the same time, we can provide the types of opportunities that young Americans are seeking. Last year, AmeriCorps received 500,000 applications for only 80,000 slots. In addition, City Year was named on the Top 100 Ideal Employer List by Universum Global, a ranking based on a survey of nearly 66,000 undergraduate students. And, in 2011, both City Year and Teach for America, two of the largest national service programs funded through AmeriCorps, were among the top 10 entry-level employers in the United States according to CollegeGrad.com. These are figures that should not be ignored.

Within one month of graduation, three in every four City Year Washington, DC corps members enroll in college, graduate school, or have a job. In fact, many corps members are offered jobs at the very schools in which they served. At Stanton Elementary School in Ward 8, for example, there are currently six City Year alumni on the school’s staff, providing valuable consistency and teaching experience to their students as they advance through their education.

It should come as no surprise that AmeriCorps members make for qualified job applicants. After all, over the course of a yearlong service term, corps members learn skills that employers find extremely valuable, and that many recent college graduates haven’t fully developed. Every day, they are practicing flexibility, effective communication, problem solving and collaboration. They are also building connections with more than 800,000 AmeriCorps alumni and 17,000 City Year alumni. These skills and traits give AmeriCorps alumni an effective leg-up over their peers in the job market.

Setting our nation’s young people up to be successful is the best gift we can give them. Investing in national service programs to ensure that opportunities exist for them to build skills while giving back to their communities is a sure way to get that done.

Jeff Franco is the vice president and executive director of City Year Washington, DC, an education-focused nonprofit organization whose teams of diverse young adults commit to a year of full-time service keeping students in school and on track to graduate.

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