Bridging the Opportunity Gap for Youth

February 23, 2015

By Cheryl Oldham

Vice President, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation Center for Education and Workforce 

The U.S. economy has made promising strides since the beginning of the Great Recession in late 2008. Economic growth is trending in the right direction, and businesses across the country are continuing to put people back to work. In October 2009, the national unemployment rate was 10%—today it stands around 5.7%. Progress certainly has been made.

However, participation in the workforce is the lowest it has been since 1978—only 62%. In addition, 17.7 million Americans are still unemployed, underemployed, or have given up looking for work altogether.

One group that makes up a significant portion of this 17.7 million is America’s youth. 

These are the so-called “opportunity youth”—more than 6 million Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 who are at risk of being shut out of our economy. These young adults are out of school and out of work. In fact, the unemployment rate for young adults is 13.8%—more than twice the national rate.

The challenge is to bridge that opportunity gap—especially since this generation of Americans will one day lead our nation. It’s not just the future of these young people at stake—the economic and competitive future of this country will be determined by how we respond to the growing trend of youth unemployment.

The American business community is one constituency that is becoming increasingly involved in this issue. Business leaders are highly engaged and deeply invested in solving youth unemployment and its underlying causes. Companies need workers. Businesses of all sizes across the nation need a steady flow of talent to maintain operations and grow in the 21st century. It’s good for business and crucial to competitiveness.

Also, it’s the right thing to do for our country. Young people who are given the tools and the opportunity to participate in our economy are more productive members of society. People who are locked out of our economy slip into joblessness and poverty and are more likely to risk incarceration—essentially a life of struggle. This has enormous ramifications on society.

The Urban Alliance estimates that each young adult that drops out of the economy will cost taxpayers more than $700,000 during his or her lifetime. This means lower tax revenues, slower economic growth, and higher government spending. The business community has both the capacity and the responsibility to help prevent this—and some companies are taking the lead. Companies like Caterpillar, Wegmans, Permac, and Varcom have been deeply engaged in this issue and continue to be leaders in onboarding programs for young adults.

On Thursday, February 26, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation will co-host the National Opportunity Summit in Washington, D.C., to bring together business and nonprofits leaders, elected officials, and young people to address the challenge of youth unemployment. At the event, the Foundation will release Making Youth Employment Work: Essential Elements for a Successful Strategy, a white paper that provides employers with strategies on how to forge new and customized pathways for developing young talent as part of their overall business strategy.

The business community has a critical role to play in improving employment opportunities for young people. This is not an easy task. Through partnerships and the identification of successful strategies, employers can provide youth with experiences that will reap tangible benefits for both groups.

We have to give young adults the opportunity to realize their potential and put it to work in this economy.

It’s good for youth, it’s good for business, and it’s good for America.


Cheryl Oldham is vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Center for Education and Workforce.