Beyond Empowerment: Engaging Opportunity Youth Through A Team Effort

When leaders in corporate America decide to become engaged on a social issue, they bring a corporate “can-do” mindset to the challenge. So in the case of providing jobs for Opportunity Youth, it’s only natural that many will try to utilize the training practices that have worked for them in the past with their current workforce.

However, since today’s youth cohort is much more multicultural and diverse than the current broad workforce population, engagement becomes a challenge. In urban and low income communities high poverty, crime, and high school dropout rates add to that challenge. Most important, many young people lose hope because they do not see a way out of a community filled with fewer options, and risk factors of drugs and violence, and often imperfect schools and infrastructure.

In the U.S. today, there are currently 5.6 million Opportunity Youth. Opportunity Youth are between the ages of 16 and 24 who are out of school and not working. At the same time, there are 3.5 million unfilled jobs in the U.S. Indeed, professions that do not require a four-year degree – sometimes called “middle-skill” jobs – make up the largest part of the labor market in the United States.

For employers looking to fill these jobs, young multicultural workers are a vital and largely untapped resource. Young people, however, are often neither aware that these opportunities are available, nor aware of the steps they need to take to pursue and secure these jobs. At the same time, employers often do not have clear strategies to effectively recruit, develop and retain young workers.

Penn Foster partners with Church’s Chicken to offer an accredited online high school diploma credential to eligible Church’s employees through the Stride for Success program. Upon graduation, Church’s employees become eligible for management-level opportunities within the company. Above, the first three graduates from the Stride for Success program are celebrated in a ceremony at the Church’s Chicken headquarters in Atlanta, GA. Left to right: Brittani Seymour, Church’s Chicken – Miami, FL; Sherray Harley, Church’s Chicken – Atlanta, GA; Joann Jaso, Church’s Chicken – Raymondville, TX.

Penn Foster partners with Church’s Chicken to offer an accredited online high school diploma credential to eligible Church’s employees through the Stride for Success program. Upon graduation, Church’s employees become eligible for management-level opportunities within the company. Above, the first three graduates from the Stride for Success program at the company’s headquarters in Atlanta, GA. Left to right: Brittani Seymour, Church’s Chicken – Miami, FL; Sherray Harley, Church’s Chicken – Atlanta, GA; Joann Jaso, Church’s Chicken – Raymondville, TX.



The solution must have two critical elements: First, young people must be met where ever they are in their educational journey and a practical discussion about how they can complete their education must take place. Second, corporations must support training programs with a dual emphasis on teaching young adults how to develop a career or entrepreneurial mindset and pathway.

Penn Foster and the Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance (MFHA) are making a concerted effort to bring these important tools to the table. At Penn Foster, for instance, our high school degree completion program offers an educational foundation that we make available to young adults ?people at non-profit organizations such as Job Corps and YouthBuild, as well as a growing number of quick service restaurants, such as Church’s Chicken.

And at MFHA we bring 20 years of industry experience, cultural insights and community engagement strategies that help member companies attract, develop and retain diverse and multicultural talent to help them raise the topline, improve the bottom-line and build authentic brand value in the community. We do this through a partner model, which has the member companies working together with us every step of the way to engage and attract young people to the industry and to their companies.

Penn Foster and MFHA understand the “landscape” of both Opportunity Youth and the reason we are writing about our experience today is that we realize our organizations can’t tackle this enormous problem on our own. We urge other business and non-profit leaders to join the initiative to support Opportunity Youth. We believe that a balance must be struck between attaining academic credentials and developing the “soft skills” necessary to provide good customer service and advance a person’s career.

We also must address the fact that many business owners, managers and leaders simply don’t understand the ways of life in under-resourced and low-income communities. The impact of budget cuts to education, housing, and healthcare along with the influence of gangs and police corruption are felt by all in these underserved communities – especially the youth.

Everyone who wants to help Opportunity Youth needs to develop what MFHA refers to as Cultural Intelligence. Cultural Intelligence is having the knowledge, skills and abilities necessary to effectively and appropriately engage people from different cultural backgrounds to deliver better business results. Developing Cultural Intelligence skills helps to build trust which is at the core of all good relationships.

While the economy is beginning to show some signs of life, the recovery has yet to make it to the communities where many of our Opportunity Youth live. That’s why education is so critical and why our organizations are focused on promoting degree programs and the teaching of young people about the unwritten rules of working in a corporation and how they can be successful .

At Penn Foster and MFHA, we have seen firsthand that Opportunity Youth face institutional obstacles and stereotypes, which they must learn to overcome if they want to thrive. We believe it is imperative for cultural responsive practices to become ingrained in corporate, organizational and school programs, and the time to start is now.




Frank Britt is CEO of Penn Foster, Inc., a leading provider of skills training and employment matching for frontline workers and career and college candidates; and Gerry Fernandez is the founder and president of the Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance(MFHA), a non-profit organization promoting the economic benefits of diversity and inclusion in the restaurant, foodservice and lodging industries.

The GradsofLifeVoice Forbes team provides thought leadership, research and expert commentary on innovative talent pipelines and related issues such as the skills gap, income inequality, workforce diversity, and the business case for employment pathways. We seek to change employers’ perceptions of young adults with atypical resumes from social liabilities to economic assets. This post was originally featured here.


Diversity, Education, Income Inequality,
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