In another phase of its long-term New Skills for Youth funding initiative, JPMorgan recently announced $20 million in grants to ten states to “work with government, business and education leaders to strengthen career education and create pathways to economic success.”
That generic statement comes with a specific backstory. Namely, JPMorgan is looking for ways to address the “skills gap” to help service industry workers with only a high school diploma. With employment statistics for young people—especially those of color—remaining grim, social justice advocates and corporations find themselves on the same side of efforts to build upward mobility. Banks in particular, with their many offices in urban areas, rely heavily on diverse and young workers to fill many jobs. Often they can't find qualified applicants for “middle-skill” positions. That is, decent-paying jobs that require some experience—often very specific—but not a full four-year degree.
As corporate grantmaking picks up around the issue, education is a key focus. In cooperation with the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), JPMorgan’s grants reward states that have demonstrated plans to develop viable career education programs, working across sectors. The lucky winners this time are Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.
What this amounts to, in essence, is JPMorgan telling state and local educators “we’ll fund you if you help your students fit more properly into our corporate employment pipeline.” That might sound self-interested to the cynic, but it may also make the difference between poverty and a middle-class life for many young people.
That same cynic might also dismiss any philanthropy from the big banks as a PR effort aiming to clean up the industry reputation in the wake of the financial crisis. While there’s probably some truth to that, it’s also true that almost every major bank is focusing its philanthropy on workforce issues. That can't be a coincidence.
Last year, Bank of America put another $40 million into its ongoing youth development programs, partnering with organizations like Urban Alliance, Jobs for the Future, and Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Citi is another big player in this space, for example with its Youth Opportunity Fund, supporting youth-oriented nonprofits in several leading cities. Capital One, UBS, and Wells Fargo are also donors in this space.
Philanthropy is one way banks can send political and social signals. The fact that so many power players are uniting around youth employment tells us that 1) doing so is in the banking industry’s best interest, and 2) that banks may be coming around to the idea of broad-based prosperity as a boon to economic vitality. They’re also warming to the collaborative, cross-sector approaches in vogue these days. But the question remains: can big banks meaningfully fund solutions when they so often have a hand in the problems?
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