A Bid to Tackle Youth Unemployment, With a Focus on Employers. But Will it Work?

There are few things more depressing than being young, motivated, and unemployed. And while the problem of youth unemployment, occurring between ages 16 to 24has gradually improved lately, things are still terrible and, if we unpack the numbers by race, it gets even worse. Caucasian youth have an unemployment rate of around 12 percent, while the share of young African Americans who can't find jobs is double that.

Helping young people of color get connected to the labor force is a famously tough challenge, and harder still when so many more experienced, older workers are looking for work. But the basic laws of supply demand only begin to scratch at the complexity of this problem, which is wrapped up in some knotty social and cultural factors, too. 

Foundations have taken any number of approaches to the problem over the years, spending boatloads of money with mixed results. These days, the hopes of some funders rest on multi-pronged efforts to train young people with concrete jobs skills, but also help them connect with successful adults, establish early ties to employers, and develop the social skills needed to succeed at work. 

But given that research shows that employment discrimination on the basis of race remains alive and well, it's important to persuade employers to be more receptive to young workers of color. 

One new funder effort we're watching is the Rockefeller Foundation's "Grads of Life" program, which was unveiled in September and is a collaborative effort that includes the Ad Council, Year Up, ConPRmetidos, MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership, New Options Project, and Opportunity Nation. The initiative seeks to help catalyze the connection between employers who need to hire and young people looking for work. 

The Rockefeller Foundation is in pretty deep on the youth unemployment issue. Through its Employment Pathways Project, under which Grads of Life is funded, the foundation seeks to create a more inclusive economy, especially for young people from low-income communities who are often the biggest losers when economic downturns hit. 

But the foundation also aims its pitch at employers, calling America's "opportunity youth" an "enormous, untapped talent pool for forward-thinking employers" who often struggle to find the right candidates for unfilled jobs. 

The Grads of Life initiative has big plans for changing perception and behavior on the side of hiring managers. Through advertising and a dedicated website, the program is reaching out to companies and reimagining the hiring process to include disadvantaged youth who, with shaping and training, can become model employees. The website includes a directory of organizations helping young people prepare for work and testimonials from company hiring staff who are participating in the program and benefiting from the kids' involvement.

A key strategy of Grads of Life is helping employers start and expand internship and mentoring collaborations with groups like Year Up.

The research on mentoring as an effective intervention is growing. A 2011 meta-analysis of programs suggests that youth mentoring is a promising investment area, as it has the capacity to improve youth outcomes across multiple life dimensions. On the side of benefiting business, studies show that corporate mentoring helps to build employee loyalty as well as a positive image for the business.

Year Up is one of the partners in the Grads of Life program, having received a grant of $500,000 from the Rockefeller Foundation to build and sustain momentum for youth employment. With locations in both Boston and Providence, Year Up facilitates mentoring internships for its students which frequently result in ongoing employment and/or enrollment in higher education. It reports that 85 percent of its graduates are employed or attending college full time within four months of completing the program. We should note that, in addition to the focus on mentoring, we're seeing a big uptick these days in funder interest in internship programs as part of broader career readiness efforts. 

The Rockefeller initiative will be intriguing to watch, given how challenging this terrain has been for philanthropy over the years and how those youth employment efforts that are successful can be quite costly in terms of the outlays per worker. Maybe this effort will be different.