As vaccination rates rise, hiring is picking up, workplaces are reopening, and we’re gingerly transitioning back to normal. Despite this hopeful time, inequitable hiring trends for youth are starting to repeat themselves.
At the onset of the pandemic, 4.7 million young people were unemployed. Researchers estimated that the number of those 16-year-olds to 24-year-olds that were both out of work and out of school more than doubled to 9 million in May of that same year. Numbers have started to improve based on the growing recovery of the economy, but with between 5 and 6 million still out of work and out of school, we should use this economic light at the end of the tunnel to also shed light on important lessons of our past. We cannot let this amazing and unprecedented opportunity pass without ameliorating some of the inequitable hiring practices that caused this much needed reckoning in the first place.
These 6 million young people—who are primarily people of color, often living in marginalized communities—face incredible, systemic barriers when trying to find a meaningful job. Not only are they often the last hired and first fired, but they typically come from low-performing schools that poorly prepare them for the world of work and post-secondary education. In addition, they often live in communities geographically distant from the jobs that they are best suited to fill. It’s the cards they’ve been dealt, a function of the 400-plus years of institutional racism, intergenerational poverty, and then the mainstream fear and xenophobia that typically accompanies the results of such practices.
These insidious challenges continue to manifest as many employers fail to see these youth for who they are, what they bring to the table, what they have already navigated, and the potential of what they can be—particularly when given a chance, some understanding, as well as some practical support.
The unemployment backslide of this group in particular may seem counterintuitive, given our country’s heightened awareness of social and racial inequities. But it shouldn’t be surprising. We’ve seen this pattern again and again. When things are dire, we make bold promises to turn the system on its head, but as things improve, we settle back into business as usual.
Turning the tide
Supporting youth through school-to-career programming and education reform has been a focus throughout my career. In fact, I have been working with traditionally underserved young people since I started my career as a street counselor working with homeless youth in Boston some 36 years ago. While we have made much progress both in terms of practice and outcome, the pandemic wiped away many of our gains; it felt like we were starting over again in many ways this past year.
Ensuring that the most challenged young people have a stake and indeed a foothold in our economy is vital to their own well-being as well as to our society at large. Research shows that young people unable to access consistent work before age 25 will earn 44% less over the course of their lifetime than their peers who’ve been successfully employed. Lack of opportunities for good work at this point in their lives often causes young people, their families, and their neighborhoods to sink into long-standing cycles of intergenerational poverty. And the costs to society are immense. Economists estimate the annual cost to the nation at $25 billion dollars in lost taxes per year, not to mention the strain on our public safety nets.
At the Hire Opportunity Coalition, we work with the corporate community to build its capacity to hire, retain, and advance opportunity youth. On Wednesday June 16, we’ll host National Youth Hiring Day, an immersive, interactive virtual job fair and career preparation experience, featuring 17 exhibitors including national employers like Amazon, CVS Health, Nordstrom, Starbucks, and Verizon looking to fill 135,000-plus entry-level jobs. We launched the program in 2018 as the first national virtual job fair, and it’s grown significantly—in 2020, we connected with nearly 50,000 young job seekers.
This year’s event will be available to young job seekers from any connected device and is designed to extend access to youth most in need of career opportunities and support now. And this year will be our biggest event yet, since companies—most particularly in the service sector, where young people are most often first employed—are quickly transitioning from hardly staffed to fully staffed, practically overnight.
Every applicant who logs on during the event is guaranteed an opportunity to engage with participating companies, learn more about open entry-level positions near them, and even get hired on the spot. We’ll also be providing young people with free, robust coaching support leading up to the event, in areas that can often present barriers for so many of them—from resume help and interview prep to guidance on what to wear to a virtual job interview, how to follow up afterward, and more.
Why should you care about bringing opportunity youth to your business? Because supporting these young people doesn’t benefit only them; it also makes your company a more dynamic, well-rounded place. It equips your team with a wider variety of backgrounds and viewpoints to help meet the demands of an evolving marketplace. Research continues to mount that increasing diversity translates into measurable increases in profits. The more effectively a company’s decision makers and staff represent the ever-diversifying marketplace, the more effective it will be.
Youth hiring action plan
Changing your company’s M.O. to offer overlooked youth a real chance isn’t easy; it requires intentionality, enlightenment, and practice. But there are a few steps you can take to make it a reality, right now:
- Recognize that while these young adults may have only held entry-level jobs, or none at all, they often have grit, resilience, and dedication when taking on an opportunity that is challenging and worthwhile. It’s possible to spot these traits by asking about times they rose above a challenge—for instance, when they might have cared or provided for family members or persevered in school. Asking these reflective questions can also help opportunity youth realize their self-worth.
- Rethink your hiring practices, from interview questions to addressing concerns about drug testing. For many entry-level positions, customer engagement skills are crucial, so when interviewing candidates, notice their general warmth, ability to listen and engage one-on-one, and solve problems on their own. Look beyond paper resumés for informal experience that tends to get overlooked. Young hires might not have traditional managerial experience but could be well-versed in managing other ways, like caring for elderly family members. Several companies participating in our National Youth Hiring Day don’t require resumés, including CVS Health, FedEx, and Five Guys—proving that it’s totally possible to uncover an applicant’s qualifications without that sheet of paper.
- Shift your corporate culture to better leverage their situations and their skills. Consider, for instance, policies like flexible scheduling, transportation assistance, and educational assistance programs. Giving overlooked youth the tools and the training they need to succeed can help develop your next generation of leaders.
We are at an inflection point in our nation’s history—a moment unlike any other in our lifetime—an opportunity more brilliant and with more potential than any we may ever see again. We can’t go back to business as usual, to the same practices that landed us in this place of inequity in the first place. This is the chance for corporations to make a truly profound difference, to strive toward a more equitable future for their employees that will benefit us all. So many of us have been promising and preaching about this change during the pandemic. We now have a unique opportunity to live up to that promise.
Charles Hiteshew is the executive director of the Hire Opportunity Coalition, a broad coalition of employers and community partners committed to hiring opportunity youth and helping businesses thrive.