When Jarvez Hall thinks back to his childhood, he remembers the labels. His mom died when he was a teenager and his father was never around, so he became a ward of the state. Terms like “broken home" and “at-risk youth" clung to him like a burr.
“No matter how many times someone in my life told me how well I was doing, there was always one or two times where someone reminded me of those labels," he says. Back then, it motivated him to go to college and then graduate school, where he earned his MBA. Today, the memories are motivators to help others like him in his job as manager of workforce initiatives/Northwest outreach with the Small Business Majority, where he encourages business owners to commit to work with “opportunity youth"—people ages 16 to 24 who are not enrolled in school and lack employment—and increase the number of hires, internships, mentorships and job shadow opportunities within their company. The “opportunity" refers to the untapped potential that they hold, despite hardships they may have encountered.
The Small Business Majority is a partner in the Grads of Life campaign, a national public service advertising (PSA) campaign, created in partnership with the Ad Council, which is fighting that same fight, and creating a bridge between businesses that are struggling to fill jobs and young people who are searching for jobs.
Grads of Life is sponsored by Year Up, which provides opportunity youth with training and support to prepare them for jobs, the Employment Pathways Project, an organization that works with businesses and organizations to help them realize the benefits of working with opportunity youth, and a number of other nonprofit partners.
“Many employers are expressing increased concern about the skills gap and their inability to find talent," says Elyse Rosenblum, executive director of the Employment Pathways Project. “With the right education, training and support, many young people can be and are prepared to meet those needs, but business owners don't know where to find them."
Rosenblum says that the talent gap is actually a communications gap: According to Manpower Group, 40 percent of employers report difficulty in filling positions, and the Opportunity Index, an annual measure of economic, education and civic data, states that 5.6 million young adults are out of school and out of work. Because of that communications gap, she says businesses are missing out on an opportunity.
“I've had the privilege of getting to know a number of young people who you would describe as opportunity youth, young adults who haven't had a fair shake and have had a lot of things working against them. And what I've seen over and over again with these young people is when they're given an opportunity and some training, they are so motivated and they are so loyal," she says.
She adds that people have been working with opportunity youth to find jobs for decades, but up until now, no one had approached the situation from the perspective of the businesses that need employees. “How can [business owners] take some steps to solve their own problem around talent?" she asks. GradsofLife.org provides them with tips and tools to get started, such as mentoring, internship, school-to-work and hiring guides.
Scott Wilson, co-founder of New York City-based IT consulting firm Marathon Consulting, was a high school dropout and a college dropout. Because of that, he says a degree has never been a focal point in hiring at his company. “We've effectively ignored their education and just looked at the person as a fit for the team, from a customer service perspective," says Wilson. He says the qualities he looks for are "soft skills," like a person's ability to listen and explain things. That, he says, comes in handy when someone is hired to consult on computer problems over the phone.
In the last two years, his business has grown rapidly, and, with the help of NPower, a nonprofit that provides technology training for underserved young adults and veterans, Wilson has hired nearly 10 opportunity youth. Some started as interns. He says that by hiring them green, his company has been able to train and shape them, and it's worked out for all involved. “These guys are all very loyal, and I think part of it is the opportunity we're giving them and part of it is the culture we've created in the organization," says Wilson.
NPower, a nonprofit that provides technology training for underserved young adults and veterans, connected Alexsandru Welch, above, with Marathon Consulting, where he was hired as a proactive engineer in 2013. He's since been promoted to support specialist.
When Steve Sposari, president and CEO of SK Food Group, a food manufacturing company based in Seattle, Washington, became a board member of a youth development nonprofit, he agreed to run a pilot program that hired opportunity youth to work at SK Food Group's manufacturing facility in Columbus, Ohio.
What he learned took him by surprise: Hiring these young people wasn't just a successful move in terms of social enterprise, it was a successful move on a business level.
“Our interview-to-hire ratio was incredible in this age group. We went from about 18 to 1 to about 2 to 1 that we hired," he says. Those that were hired have had fewer absences and scored higher marks on performance reviews than their peers. They also proved more loyal, decreasing turnover at the company. That, says Sposari, saves the company money, because they don't have to invest as much time and resources to train replacements.
Since 2014, SK Food Group has hired more than 70 opportunity youth. Sposari says that a number of those who started as entry level production line workers are now in supervisory or management roles, and, in some instances, their salaries have doubled and even tripled.
Sposari says that through it all, he's learned that, if given a chance, opportunity youth can really make a difference for a business.
“What we learned is there really is a workforce out there that, if given the opportunity, will really step up to the plate," says Sposari. “They needed to be provided with some training, both soft skill and hard skill. Once we got through that, they really excelled."
For more information on the Grads of Life initiative, including tools, tips, resources and success stories, visit GradsofLife.org.
Photos from top: Courtesy of Year Up, Andy Johns / Courtesy of Marathon Consulting