This November, the Opportunity Youth Network, a network of nonprofits, businesses, philanthropy, and government whose mission is to reengage young people who are disconnected from education and employment, held its 2015 Annual Convening. At the convening, workforce and education professionals from various sectors and fields shared strategies and ideas for reconnecting the 5.5 million of out of school and out of work young people across the nation.
One of the recurrent questions throughout the summit was: how do we meaningfully engage young people in this important work? In almost every presentation, workshop, or breakout conversation, someone mentioned the missing voice of our most important constituent – young people. At one of the most inspiring presentations of the Summit, formerly out-of-school and out-of-work young people from Opportunity Youth United, a grassroots movement of opportunity youth, presented their recommendations for increasing opportunity and decreasing poverty in the United States. The presentation highlighted the organized, evidence-based, and action-oriented approach many young people across the country are taking to improve their own social and economic circumstances as well as the circumstances of their peers. However, young people are still demanding to be heard, and leaders in our field are still searching for ways to elevate their voices.
In the first quarter of 2015, 18-to 34-year-olds surpassed Baby Boomers to become the largest share of the U.S. workforce. However, last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that only 7 percent of federal government workers were 30 years old or younger, compared with 20 percent in 1975. Furthermore, a 2011 survey of nonprofit employees throughout the US reported that only 27 percent were younger than 30 years old, and a 2012 study of nonprofit leadership found that less than 1 percent of nonprofit CEOs were under age 30, and only 5 percent were between 30 and 39 years old.
While acknowledging the importance of experience in selecting effective leadership and understanding that there should be a diverse age range of advocates in the workforce field, it does seem that the public and nonprofit sectors could and should include more young decision makers. Whether it is by hiring qualified young people at leading organizations, or supporting and investing in groups like Opportunity Youth United to ensure their prosperity and longevity, meaningful engagement with young people starts by bringing them to the table as equals. As a young adult working in this field, I see the value of an intergenerational approach to developing policy and program solutions to engage young people in school and work. Our efforts to involve young people in our work must include genuine engagement and fair compensation for their time, labor, and ideas.