Why opportunity youth are more reliable than most millennials in the workforce

The 3 million to 7 million young people from underserved communities in this category defy the stereotype of peripatetic and unreliable young adults.

Why opportunity youth are more reliable than most millennials in the workforce
[Photo: Dimi Katsavaris/Unsplash]

Younger workers have a promiscuous reputation.


Employers complain that they recruit them and acclimate them into the workplace, only to watch them bolt to another organization at the slightest prompting.

These gripes are not without reason. A study by Gallup in 2016 found that 21% of millennial workers had left their job during the previous year to do something else, a rate of turnover that was more than three times higher than that of non-millennials. As Kim Peters of the Great Places to Work Institute has remarked: This is a generation, it seems, that is “always looking for a better fit.”

Yet there’s one pool of younger workers that defies this peripatetic behavior: those from underserved communities who are given a clear path to a good job—and, with it, a good life—after having become detached from both school and the world of work.


In all, it’s estimated that there are anywhere from 3 million to 7 million so-called opportunity youth, ages 16 to 24, across the country. Most are black and Hispanic. Many are extremely motivated; all they need is a shot.

For those businesses that have tapped people from this cohort for entry-level positions, the payoff has been tremendous: Once they land at a company, they tend to become highly engaged—and fiercely loyal—employees.

“Because we invest in them, they invest in us,” says Ebony Frelix, senior vice president for philanthropy and engagement at, the nonprofit arm of Salesforce, the business software giant.


Over the past decade, 334 interns have been placed at Salesforce and by Year Up, a nonprofit that trains opportunity youth and connects them with major employers. Of those interns, 170 have gone into full-time Salesforce jobs. And among those employees, retention is notably strong.

“Sticky is the perfect word to define them,” Frelix says.

Salesforce won’t share exact numbers, but Year Up says that the data it has been able to collect from the 300 employers in its national network (mostly in technology, finance, and healthcare) reveal a consistent pattern: Younger workers stay in their first job for about 18 months on average. But for opportunity youth, the figure is more than twice as long—40 to 45 months.


“A lot of our corporate partners see this as giving them a competitive edge,” says Roberto Zeledon, chief marketing officer at Year Up, which has had about 20,000 opportunity youth go through its program since its founding in 2000.

Similar programs boast comparable results. Gap Inc., for instance, says that those it hires out of its internship program for teens and young adults from low-income areas, This Way Ahead, wind up staying with the company twice as long as their peers. (The company has set a goal to have This Way Ahead serve as the pipeline for 5% of its entry-level store employees by 2025.)

“The youth who participate . . . are very committed,” says David Hayer, the company’s senior vice president of global sustainability and president of the Gap Foundation.


Actually, the fact that the typical younger worker jumps from employer to employer is not particular to millennials (those born between 1981 and 1998) or those who’ve come after them, Gen Z.

“Young people have always job-hopped more than older workers,” says Dan Schawbel, a millennial himself who studies and writes extensively about the future of work. He cites a 2017 Pew Research Center analysis, which indicated that millennials are just as likely to remain with their employer as were their Gen X counterparts when they were the same age.

Even the organization man bounced around

Indeed, even in post-World War II America, when it was common to speak in terms of “lifetime employment,” it wasn’t unusual for someone to bounce around at several corporations before finally settling in somewhere. In his classic depiction of the era, The Organization Man, William Whyte observed that less than a third of the recently graduated Harvard Business School class of 1951 expected to stay at their present employer. “The professional manager,” he wrote, “is shifting companies . . . with increasing facility.”


In this respect, today’s opportunity youth are not just running counter to their own generation; their running counter to history. Considering where they’ve come from, however, it all makes excellent sense.

Says Zeledon: “There’s definitely a difference. They don’t have an attitude of entitlement.”

Take Marisol Espinoza. The 26-year-old signed on with Year Up after holding a series of minimum-wage jobs around San Francisco. She made it through the standard six months of Year Up classes—learning a combination of hard skills and soft skills—and then joined Salesforce as an intern in 2014.


“I was totally intimidated,” she recalls. But Espinoza soon discovered that she had a knack for project management. Once her six-month internship ended, Salesforce hired her. “Before I knew it,” she says, “I had started my career in tech.”

Espinoza is currently a senior project manager for Trailhead, Salesforce’s free online training platform. “I’m doing so much more than I ever imagined I’d be doing,” she says. “I don’t see myself leaving anytime soon.”

Others exhibit the same fidelity. “It takes a lot for a company to give you the chance, to open its doors and say, ‘Show me what you’ve got,'” says Andrea Lozada, who is also 26 and came to the financial services firm State Street via Year Up in 2014.


Born and raised in Mexico City, Lozada immigrated to Boston with her family when she was 13. For several years after high school, she had a string of odd jobs. “I was getting a little hopeless there,” she says. “I was just kind of lost.”

Or, as Mike Scannell, a State Street senior vice president and head of the State Street Foundation, puts it: “These are individuals, quite honestly, who would not have envisioned themselves working for a global financial leader.”

Now, Lozada is in charge of an asset-manager services team—one of about 640 people who have been hired by State Street from among the 1,000 or so Year Up interns that the company has brought in over time. Looking ahead, she can see herself at the company for the long haul, steadily climbing the ranks. How far can she go? “Maybe a vice president,” she says. “You never know.”


A short leash

Not every opportunity youth pans out, of course. Even if someone has completed job training, adjusting to the norms and expectations of corporate America can be challenging. Being successful often depends on a manager who is understanding—and those can be in short supply.

In many situations, “opportunity youth actually have a short leash,” says Jay Banfield, Year Up’s chief innovation officer. “If they make a mistake, the door gets shut pretty quick.”

A nurturing supervisor, on the other hand, can change everything.


Dashawn Hightower, who is from the Bronx and took part in This Way Ahead in 2013, got off to a rocky start. “There were times when I was late or got written up,” he says. But his managers “didn’t give up on me.”

Finally, one pulled him aside and asked, “What is it you want to do with this opportunity?” Says Hightower: “I thought I had joined the program to become a sales associate and get a check. She made me realize that this was only the beginning.” Today, he is a business and operations training specialist at Old Navy’s flagship store in Manhattan.

For employers—which in the case of Year Up pay $26,000 per intern to cover the cost of a stipend, training, and placement—the returns they receive from such dedication are manifold.


First, turnover is expensive. Deloitte HR expert Josh Bersin has pointed out that the total cost of losing an employee can range from tens of thousands of dollars to as much as two times his or her annual salary once you take into account hiring, onboarding, lost productivity, and other factors.

Second, opportunity youth make for a more inclusive workforce, which has been proven to foster creativity and bolster financial performance. “Diversity brings different views of the market,” says Sarah Franklin, the executive vice president and general manager of Trailhead and developer relations at Salesforce, who has six Year Up alumni in her group. It was their insight and experience, for example, that pushed Trailhead to offer more mobile options because, as they reminded Franklin, “not everybody has access to a computer.”

Third, employing opportunity youth is attractive to other individuals, especially millennials, who want to work for a place that is making a positive social contribution. In effect, those who’ve come through a program like Year Up act as a magnet, luring “other talented people” who “care about purpose,” Franklin says.


Fourth, front-line supervisors who work directly with opportunity youth sharpen their own skills. At Gap Inc., for example, 95% of This Way Ahead managers improved last year in at least one key competency: the ability to oversee teams, communicate effectively, or work well with all kinds of people. Managers also related that the program enhances their pride in the company and, therefore, they’re “more willing to go beyond what is normally expected to help their brand succeed,” Hayer says.

Hiring for potential, not credential

So, why don’t more companies accommodate opportunity youth?

For starters, it takes a willingness to find value in candidates who don’t have a formal degree beyond high school. “We hire for potential, not credential,” says Hayer.

Just how many companies will make this leap is uncertain. A recent survey of human resources executives by Learning House and Future Workplace found that 90% say they’re open to accepting nontraditional candidates who don’t hold a four-year college degree. But other studies suggest that this may be mostly rhetoric. Many employers are, in fact, moving in the other direction, requiring a college diploma even when one isn’t really needed to do the job.

That’s too bad. Having attended college, after all, is no indicator of dependability.

Just ask Jay Hammonds. Since landing as a Year Up intern at Facebook nearly seven years ago, he has seen plenty of colleagues churn through the company. The average stint at the social network, according to a recent report, is 2.5 years.

“It’s almost like they say, ‘I’ve been here a year or two. I deserve X, Y, or Z,'” Hammonds explains. When those things don’t occur quickly enough for them, be it a raise or a promotion, they’re on to the next company.

But Hammonds says that his past—growing up as a poor kid in Hayward, California, before finding his way to Facebook through Year Up—has taught him to be grateful and patient. Because the company bet on him, he says, he made a pledge to himself early on to stay for at least five years. “I was going to give them my best effort,” he says.

Along the way, he has been rewarded with some terrific roles, including helping to lead IT operations at Instagram after Facebook acquired it in 2012. He now handles technical management for top executives, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “I don’t feel like I’ve been stagnant,” says Hammonds, who is 25.

Meantime, having blown through his five-year plan, he has replaced it with a 10-year plan—all focused on having as big an impact as he can at the one employer he has ever known.


About the author

Rick Wartzman is head of the KH Moon Center for a Functioning Society at the Drucker Institute and the author of four books, including his latest, The End of Loyalty: The Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America. You can follow him @RWartzman.