Four Policy Principles To Close The Opportunity Divide

Co-authored by Cassius Johnson and Jonathan Hasak

“What the people want is very simple – they want an America as good as its promise.” Congresswoman Barbara Jordan

During most of the 20th century, the American Dream promised our nation’s youth that if they worked hard and got a college degree they would get a good job.  An underlying assumption lay in the efficacy of our education and workforce system to prepare individuals needed to fuel the economy.  Yet two major problems have emerged.  First, millions of young people today are leaving schools, colleges, and training programs lacking the skills needed for middle skills jobs.  Second, employers of all sizes are struggling to find the talent they need to fill vacant positions.

opportunity divide

Despite what our politics and media tell us, Opportunity Youth—young adults neither in school nor working – are not naïve. They understand that they do not have the skills required to compete for or secure family sustaining jobs and wages.  Yet unemployed and underemployed youth are resigned to access a workforce and education system that far too often fails to provide them with the skills necessary to get a job that will improve their life prospects.  This unfortunate injustice affects young Americans across the country but has had an especially adverse impact on Opportunity Youth in low-income, rural, and minority communities.

Skills have become the global currency of 21st century economies.  And our nation’s youth need an education and workforce system that is untethered by political constraints and poor resource allocation – a system where employers view them as a viable talent source for middle skills jobs and where education and training programs actually prepare them for those jobs.

To accomplish this, we need to start by reforming our education and workforce systems to adhere to a set of four policy principles.
  1. Align systems to employer demand.  Current education and workforce systems do not provide all young people with the skills they need for successful lives.  In order for Opportunity Youth to become a source of entry-level talent, education and workforce systems across the country must be more responsive to employer demand.  Seamless alignment to skills demanded in the labor market will ensure education and workforce systems in respective states, regions, and communities are preparing Opportunity Youth for gainful employment and lifelong learning.
  1. Facilitate more cross-sector collaboration.  Many well-intentioned reformers have worked to leverage government intervention or market innovation to help increase labor market and life outcomes for Opportunity Youth.  However, a lack of systemic collaboration has resulted in inefficiencies and limited returns on investments.  More cross-sector collaboration that mobilizes businesses, training providers, and advocates will more effectively change perceptions of Opportunity Youth as a source of talent for employers.
  1. Focus on outcomes and results. For decades accountability provisions in our education and workforce systems have inadvertently made compliance a measure of success.  The shift of systemic policies and procedures from a compliance focus to outcomes-driven orientation is critical for creating competition in the education and workforce-training field so that public resources are awarded to programs and providers that succeed.  Higher education and workforce systems must share responsibility for labor market outcomes by adopting goals and adapting use of public resources to continuously improve labor market and life outcomes that matter for Opportunity Youth.
  1. Secure opportunity for all youth. Despite a recovering labor market, many communities remain cut off from jobs, investments, and hope.  Eliminating employment barriers and advancing community solutions are essential for building ladders of opportunity that lead to a responsible life with dignified work.  Moreover, increasing opportunity enhances economic prosperity for Opportunity Youth, sets them up for sustainable careers, and helps address skill gaps and human capital needs of businesses.
Inequality of opportunity in this country is a choice we have made as a society but we believe lawmakers, corporate leaders, and community advocates have the power to level the playing field for Opportunity Youth and close the Opportunity Divide.  But minor tweaks will not do the trick.  For we must not just correct the daily experience of inequality Opportunity Youth face but comprehensively change perceptions, practices and policies, as well as the economic drivers that prop up our education and workforce systems.

Accomplishing all this may be politically difficult but it would provide our nation’s youth what they ultimately deserve – an America as good as its promise.




Cassius Johnson is a Senior Director of Public Policy and Government Affairs at Year Up.  Jonathan Hasak is a Manager of Public Policy and Government Affairs at Year Up.

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.


Government/Policy, Skills Gap, Workforce Development,
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