Year Up: Closing the Divide Between Urban Youth and Professional Careers

African American Business Man

Year Up is a national nonprofit that enables urban young adults to move from poverty to professional careers in one year. Right now there are six million young people in this country who are disconnected from the economic mainstream. Six million people unable to access higher education or employment at a livable wage often because of factors beyond their control: the color of their skin, the bank balance of their parents, or the ZIP code they were born into. Our nation’s low-income young adults are sitting on the sidelines of our economy, and if America is to be prosperous in the future we will need all our citizens to be active participants in its success. These young people deserve opportunity as much as anyone else, and they are capable, motivated, and resilient – in fact, they embody every quality top employers look for in an employee. They just haven’t had the chance to show it yet.

That’s where Year Up comes in. Through our innovative approach – combining hands-on technical and professional skills training, stipends, professional internships, and college credits – we empower our young people to reach their potential. And not only reach their potential, but lift themselves out of poverty, lift their families out of poverty, and spread opportunity to those still in need. We do this by introducing employers to the talent they’ve been looking for all along. We serve our mission through the market by tailoring our training to jobs and industries with high growth potential, and both our students and our partners benefit: 85% of Year Up graduates are working or attending school full time within four months of completing the program, with an average wage of $16 per hour. We offer our partners a pipeline of talent that is valuable and relevant to them, and show them that good citizenship and good business can be one and the same.

The best part about how Year Up works, though, is that it works: when we started our program in Boston, our students impressed their employers so much that it inspired us to expand to Providence. Then to New York. Then Washington D.C., then San Francisco, then Atlanta, Chicago, Baltimore, Seattle, Miami, San Jose, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Jacksonville. Our program has shown that young people are worth investing in, and we’ve started to change the conversation: major employers like American Express, JP Morgan Chase and Co., and Hasbro are coming to us and asking for custom training solutions for their hiring needs because they’re so impressed by the skills and professionalism of the young people they meet. That’s how Year Up has grown from serving 22 students per year to 2,750 – and we still have a lot of work to do to close the Opportunity Divide.

Our mission is to ensure that every young person has the opportunity to reach their potential. Not some, or most, but all. We’re building on the success of our direct service program to influence the systems which have created the Opportunity Divide in America today. We’re partnering with initiatives like Grads of Life to shift the perception of urban young adults from social liabilities to economic assets. We’re engaging employers to prove the return on investment young people provide to their business. We’re shaping public policy to direct resources into programs that work. We do this because over the next ten years, fourteen million jobs requiring some level of post-secondary education will go unfilled. We do this because there are six million people who need more opportunity than Year Up or any one program can offer. Most importantly, we do this so our students can break the cycle of poverty and reach their true potential.

With soaring college tuition costs, explosive growth in the middle-skills job market, and an increasing disconnect between the two, there is a bigger need now than ever before to make sure our education system provides our young adults with the skills they need to succeed in the knowledge economy. This is just the beginning of an unprecedented shift in the way we think about and access higher education: by 2018, more than 64% of jobs will require some level of postsecondary training – and only 8% of young people receive a bachelor’s by their mid-twenties. There is no longer a linear process from education to work, especially when you consider that more than 80% of college-goers work at least part-time. Year Up is only one pathway for young people to access that level of training necessary to secure a job in the middle-skills market, the fastest growing sector in the labor force today. We – employers, educators, policymakers, citizens – must recognize the talent in this country that is being overlooked. And not only recognize it, but put it to work.