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Crain’s Chicago Business: Illinois must address youth opportunity drought

By Gaylord Gieseke

As longtime champions for job readiness opportunities for our state’s teens and youth, we agree that teens and youth must be better prepared to meet the needs and expectations of the 21st century workplace (“Amy Rule finds her cause, and it’s Urban Alliance”).  

Nationwide, the number of employed youth — nearly 6.5 million — is at the lowest rate since the 1950s, according to a new Annie E. Casey Foundation report, “Youth and Work: Restoring Teen and Young Adult Connection to Opportunity.” Here in Illinois, youth employment has plummeted in the past decade: Nearly 270,000 Illinois teens and young adults are not in school and jobless, a 16 percent increase since 2000. Equally distressing, the number of employed youth (ages 16-24) in Illinois decreased by 19 percent in the past decade, to 779,000 in 2011 from 965,000 in 2000.  

Illinois teens and youth are encountering more difficulty getting critical early work experience due to greater competition for increasingly scarce entry-level jobs. That means far too many teens and youth are veering toward a path of chronic underemployment as adults and failing to gain the skills employers need.  

Child advocates, business leaders and policymakers recognize the urgent need for innovative programs that help youth gain valuable experience today so they’re well-positioned when opportunities arise. Voices for Illinois Children is a leader and convener of the statewide advocacy organization ACT Now, a coalition of organizations that support teens and youth, including after-school programs that provide mentoring and career preparation programs. Erie Neighborhood House, Project Exploration and After School Matters are just a few examples of Chicago organizations that provide a bridge between classrooms and careers by facilitating apprenticeship and mentoring opportunities. They’re addressing the skills gap directly.

Many Illinois businesses, like Boeing, Motorola, Geek Squad and Woodward MPC, understand the short- and long-term value of creating partnerships with youth programs. Companies report increased employee morale and better teamwork. They also see decreased turnover and increased confidence and loyalty, because assigning a mentoring opportunity sends a signal that an employee’s work is highly valued. Also, companies report that when employees have the opportunity to teach someone else their job, they actually perform better themselves because they identify areas for personal growth during the coaching sessions.  

In the long term, companies understand that we’re all working to ensure that today’s youth become tomorrow’s skilled workers, business owners and entrepreneurs. It will take a committed, coordinated and sustained effort among our state leaders, nonprofit organizations and businesses to make this vision a reality. But the health of our families, communities — and our state’s economy — depends on it.

Gaylord Gieseke is president of Voices for Illinois Children.

Read the article at Crain’s Chicago Business.com.