McKinsey & Company

McKinsey on Society


Voices Jobs for the young & restless

Creating opportunity for disconnected young Americans

Patty StonesiferChair
The White House Council for Community Solutions

Patty Stonesifer advises business, nonprofit and government leaders on strategies for reducing inequity. In 2012 she completed a three-year term as Chair of the Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents. In the ten years prior, she was the founding CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She continues to serve on the Smithsonian Board of Regents, as well as on the boards of the Center for Global Development and the Broad Institute. In 2010 President Obama appointed her as Chair of the White House Council on Community Solutions. She is a graduate of Indiana University, and has received honorary doctorate degrees from Indiana University and Tufts University.

Too many American students leave school unprepared for college or work. And it’s not just those who fail to graduate. The disconnect between the classroom and the workplace leaves many high school graduates—and even many college graduates—unprepared to find a career and excel in it. The situation is more desperate for dropouts, many of whom quit school because they do not see a connection between what they’re learning today and what’s possible tomorrow. While high school and college degrees have become the minimum prerequisite for most jobs, employers now demand more specialized knowledge and a higher degree of advanced thinking and problem-solving skills. In addition, many young people are caught in the trap of being unable to find a job without experience, and being unable to get that experience without a job.

Add it all up, and millions of young people are washing out of the education-to-work pipeline without ever finding a meaningful job. While some youth are being pushed out as they struggle to keep up with coursework that’s not engaging or to handle personal and family needs, millions more leave school with hollow diplomas and degrees, inadequately prepared to meet the needs of today’s workforce.

Although a recent MetLife survey of American teachers found that virtually all students plan to continue on to higher education (with three-fourths expecting to attain a bachelor degree), census data show that only slightly more than two-fifths of Americans obtain any college degree. This simply will not meet the needs of the US economy:

  • A study by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce projected that the United States will need 22 million new college graduates through 2018, but at current graduation rates, the country will fall short by at least 3 million.
  • The study also estimates a need for at least 4.7 million more workers with postsecondary certificates.
  • Even though our economy needs workers for high-paying jobs in the skilled trades, only 5 percent of high schoolers (about 733,000 students) say they are on the vocational/career track.

Young people’s lack of preparation for work shows up in high youth unemployment rates—17 percent (unadjusted) of youth were out of work in February 2012, with less than half of youth employed. By contrast, the unemployment rate for those 25 and older was 7.4 percent, with 61 percent employed. And the 11 percent who never graduate or obtain a GED find it even harder to find employment. The unemployment rate for nongraduate adults was 14.8 percent, compared with 9.2 percent for high school graduates.

This future is most ominous for the 6.7 million young people who are disconnected from school and jobs and who have little hope of finding sustained employment that will pay more than the minimum wage. A recent study commissioned by the White House Council for Community Solutions estimates that one in six young people aged 16 to 24 falls into the category of “disconnected youth,” unable to tap into either learning or work opportunities. This same analysis, conducted by experts from Columbia University and Queens College at the City University of New York, estimated that without a bold, “all in” effort to help these young people become self-sufficient adults, taxpayers will shoulder $1.6 trillion over the lifetime of this cohort in lost revenue and direct costs for social support.

While more than half of these young people (54 percent) are looking for full-time work, they recognize that their lack of experience and education make it difficult to find jobs. Despite the enormous challenges that keep them out of school and the workforce, more than three-fourths accept responsibility for their future, and three in four are confident or hopeful that they will be able to achieve their life goals.

While there is a growing cadre of programs that bring together the best of communities and the public and private sectors to support students in school, disconnected youth need more flexible pathways and “wraparound” support—and they need it now. They need access to relevant education, mentoring and training; they need help meeting family responsibilities; and they need employers willing to take a chance on them. Without an opportunity to learn critical skills and earn an income, these young people are less likely to become the kind of healthy, productive citizens that are crucial to the long-term strength and competitiveness of our nation.

We must go all in for youth and unite across sectors—corporate, philanthropic, nonprofit, government, and education—to create programs and communities that surround young people with education, career training, mentoring, and comprehensive, flexible social support. Using a “collaboratives” approach, community leaders must break down artificial barriers and work together. Our work with The Bridgespan Group on Needle-moving community collaboratives: A promising approach to addressing America’s biggest challenges found that successful collaboratives commit to a long-term project, involve key stakeholders from all sectors, share data to set the agenda and improve over time, and engage community members (including youth) as partners with substantive roles. A few projects can provide examples of this approach:

  • The Strive Partnership of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky brought together key community leaders who agreed on a collective approach to improving student achievement. Recognizing that fixing just one element of the pipeline would be insufficient, different groups united to improve the whole pipeline at every stage of a young person’s life, “from cradle to career.” Instead of creating yet another new education program, Strive researched what works and used a carefully structured process to focus the entire community on a detailed road map with a series of systemic interventions structured to sustain impact. In the four years since the group was launched, Strive partners have improved student success in dozens of key areas; for example, there has been a 10 percent increase in Cincinnati graduation rates since 2003.
  • Alignment Nashville involved more than 100 nonprofit leaders and community members (including students) to focus on school attendance as a way to raise graduation rates, improve school performance, and reduce youth crime. Coordinating the previously isolated improvement efforts of separate groups, Nashville developed a master plan that aligned youth needs with services from multiple providers. The program uses data to forge unity, empower community members, attract partners (including well-known leaders), formalize structure, and share fund-raising responsibilities. For instance, to improve school attendance, the city revamped its public transportation system and created fare waivers for students. Since Alignment Nashville began, graduation rates have risen by more than 20 percentage points and truancy has declined by 35 to 40 percent.
  • Philadelphia’s Project U-Turn, organized through the Philadelphia Youth Network, enabled the school district, mayor’s office, courts, welfare system, advocacy groups, service providers, and funders to coordinate services and focus on getting students to graduate. They work on research, share data, and undertake planning through a collaborative inside/outside approach with meaningful youth participation and dedicated staffing. This effort helped raise Philadelphia’s graduation rate by 12 percentage points between 2004 and 2011.

There are also several notable new school models that marry a focus on academic achievement with work readiness:

  • To better link schooling with careers, some communities are developing schools around career themes; for example, 366 schools are working with the National Academy Foundation to form academies of finance, hospitality and tourism, information technology, and engineering. More than 9 out of 10 students in these academies graduate high school, and 4 out of 5 continue on to college.
  • The YouthBuild program works by helping dropouts earn their GEDs while learning critical job skills by building low-income housing. In 2010, of the 78 percent who finished the program, 63 percent earned a GED/diploma, 25 percent continued on to college, and 35 percent found jobs paying an average of $9.20 an hour.

Just as a leaky pipe can be fixed by wrapping it in waterproof material, the leaky pipeline between education and careers can be fixed by pursuing new, more flexible pathways and coupling them with wraparound services, often involving the whole community to address the needs of youth as both students and developing adults.

In order for these types of approaches to be fully effective in connecting education to work, we must take a hard look at what it means to be all in for youth. Everyone has a role to play:

  • Employers can help young people develop a range of soft and work-ready skills by defining the knowledge and skills necessary to be a successful employee and then communicating them through mentoring, career days, job shadowing, internships, and paid positions that lead to permanent jobs.
  • Nonprofits can provide training, education, and work experiences for youth and give them leadership roles in developing these programs. Nonprofits can also often provide the social support necessary to help disconnected young people get back on track.
  • Government can develop policies and deliver funding to reward those who move aggressively and effectively to support disconnected youth.
  • Philanthropists can help communities and organizations start new and expand existing youth-centered models and become active partners in community collaboratives.
  • Parents and families can model what’s possible, set high expectations, offer support, and advocate for young people.
  • Young people themselves can work hard to achieve success in school and work, and they can step up as peer mentors, role models, and a voice for youth.

Finally, every one of us can be an example, a trusted resource, and a champion for youth. If we hold young people to high standards—and embrace them with unwavering support and guidance—our young people will have the skills they need to chart their futures and become engaged and productive citizens who can contribute to the long-term strength and competitiveness of our nation.

E-mail alerts

Get our latest knowledge emailed to you

Follow us