My nonprofit, Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG), works on the front lines across 1,400 locations in 39 states to support vulnerable youth as they seek to complete the school year and helps to give them an edge in the worst job market in modern history. We see a growing range of troubling signs for those young people, many as yet unreported.
These indications have immediate and potentially long-term disastrous consequences for a significant part of a generation of America’s youth.
Through deep recessions and economic recoveries, ever-changing job markets and ever-tightening graduation requirements, it is vital that we as leaders, especially in the nonprofit sector, help the youth in the nation succeed in school, on the job and in attaining a good and productive life. However, in our decades of operation, I have never seen such a clear and present danger to so many of the vulnerable youth of America.
We have already begun to see some of the short-term effects of the pandemic, such as finding opportunities for graduating seniors to enter the labor market, with tens of millions unemployed and more to come. However, today we see an even greater threat.
Millions of today’s youth may drop out as they lose contact with schools and others, and fall even further behind in academics or lose motivation to try.
Overwhelming evidence suggests that if young people graduate, get a job and move forward in their careers, the odds are high that they will continue to succeed. The odds are even higher that if they do not complete school and/or find a way into the labor market, they will be pushed to the margins of society and the economy, which will have deep and damaging effects on their future.
It is understandable that so many schools have been unable to provide effective learning in this environment, having to turn on a dime from the traditions of a couple hundred years of classroom education to an entirely virtual skill set. Nonetheless, millions of young people in America, and hundreds of millions worldwide, have lost a crucial piece of their education.
We also see the growing sense of students being overwhelmed by the day-to-day requirements in their households, adding to the loss of contact with school and classmates. Their issues are compounded by the social isolation and the lack of options for those in dysfunctional homes, who are now required to stay there for long periods of time.
We will all have to look to highly creative, entrepreneurial teachers, school systems and states, as well as our colleagues in the nonprofit sector, to find ways to truly reengage with youth, motivate them to stay in school, allow them to catch up on what they have missed and teach them the essentials for success in the 21st century.
The crucial element from our experience has been engagement — especially for the most vulnerable. They are the ones most likely to drop out, fall behind and not to get into the job market. Our friends in the nonprofit world that have a means of engagement with students, including student organizations of all kinds, need to stay with these young people through the tough summer months ahead and into the coming school year.
All of us in the nonprofit sector who have proven our ability to directly impact the lives of vulnerable youth and their families will need to redouble our efforts to discover and implement new ways to boost real and genuine engagement. This entails keeping our young people focused on completing school, teaching them (and even learning together) what is required to succeed in the recovering job market and ensuring they stay the course for public secondary education, if possible. Regardless of the recovery process from COVID-19, being able to maintain engagement virtually, as well as in person, will be essential — and this generation is especially good at it. We as nonprofits have to be as well.
We in the nonprofit sector must also consider out-of-the-box approaches to the challenges this pandemic presents our next generation. Perhaps consider electronic gatherings to brainstorm ways to extend our collective reach over the next several months, and work in close cooperation with state and local governments, schools, workforce boards, cities and counties to reach the vulnerable populations and support effective education, personal health and entry into the labor market.
For sure, nonprofit leaders need to maximize the use of new federal funds to redouble their capacity and their impact, and we need to build new coalitions of nonprofits at the state and local level to coordinate the response to the crisis.
As President Ronald Reagan said so memorably years ago, “I believe the best social program is a job.” The lack of jobs is yet another of the deepening risks of a lost generation, prevented by circumstance from having a fighting chance to succeed in the future.