Closing the Opportunity Divide

Gerald Chertavian

Gerald Chertavian is being honored as a Youth Jobs+ Champion of Change for his innovative work to develop the discipline and skills associated with employment for our country’s youth.  

When Martin Luther King gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech fifty years ago, the event’s full title was “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” That full name, often overlooked in the years since, was selected with purpose. Dr. King and other leaders saw economic opportunity and self-sufficiency as an essential element of human freedom and the American promise. They also understood that businesses, and all Americans, suffered when the collective talents and purchasing power of an entire cohort of Americans – not only African-Americans, but people of all races from disadvantaged backgrounds – went largely unrecognized.

Indeed, employers today may be suffering from the Opportunity Divide more than ever before. In 2011, more than 30% of US employers had vacancies open for more than six months as they struggled to find qualified applicants, even in a time of high unemployment. There are good, family-supporting, middle-skills jobs being created in the 21st century economy, but not enough middle-skilled applicants to fill them.

Meanwhile, 6.7 million young Americans are out of school and out of work. Each of them costs taxpayers an average of $14,000 in social expenses and lost revenues for every year that they remain disconnected from career pathways. Unfortunately, there are some that believe that investing in training for undereducated, underemployed young adults has low returns, but these are smart, talented, and perseverant individuals, with enormous potential to offer employers.

Year Up’s students and alumni are living proof. We partner with more than 250 leading employers – smart, innovative companies like Microsoft, Salesforce.com, and State Street – to provide a steady pipeline of diverse, skilled talent for high-demand positions. Talent like Jay Hammonds, who left college after one year due to financial constraints, and set his sights on securing a part-time job at Safeway before he found our program. Jay completed his Year Up internship at Facebook and is still there today as an Executive Support Technician, working closely with the company’s leadership on a daily basis. In fact, 84% of our alumni are working full-time or are in school within four months of graduation, and those who are working earn an average of $15/hour ($30,000/year for salaried employees), more than twice the federal minimum wage. With access to training and corporate networks, our students are EPIC: Empowered, Professional, In-demand by employers, and Career-ready.

If we shifted our perceptions to see talent like Jay’s in the face of every young adult struggling to pay for college or find a job, we would find the human capital to start filling millions of vacancies in this country and help our businesses to grow. That’s what Dr. King explained so well – that all of our freedom and economic wellbeing is tied to that of each other. That’s what he marched for.

Closing the Opportunity Divide remains one of the major movements of our time, but nowadays it’s happening off the street as much as on it. It’s happening in board rooms and offices around the country, as more and more employers lean into the future and understand the economic need to shift their perceptions and hiring practices. Fifty years on, we are still fighting to extend the freedom of opportunity to all Americans. More than ever, we cannot afford not to do so.

Gerald Chertavian is the Founder and CEO of Year Up.  Year Up's mission is to close the Opportunity Divide by providing urban young adults with the skills, experience, and support that will empower them to reach their potential through professional careers and higher education.

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