Employer Engagement

Addressing the Needs of Disconnected Young Adults in the Southwest

By Lorenzo L. Esters, Senior Program Director, National Engagement and Philanthropy, USA Funds

Lorenzo Esters at Southwest PathwaysConferenceI recently attended the Global Pathway Institute’s inaugural Southwest Pathways Conference held at Arizona State University.  The event, created by the Global Pathways Institute in collaboration with Innovate+Educate, aims to launch an ongoing regional movement with the goal of preparing far more youth for economic independence.  In attendance were more than 200 individuals who obviously are passionate about the plight of disconnected young adults – young people between the ages of 16-24 who are neither enrolled in school nor employed.

The issues faced by disconnected young adults pose a daunting challenge. The U.S. has more than 5.5 million disengaged young people — one of every seven in that age group.  Dealing with disconnected young adults certainly is an imperative in the Southwest.  The states highlighted at the conference — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah — are ethnically diverse and home to large Native American and Latino populations. The challenges facing the Southwest region’s disconnected young adults have major implications for policymakers and education providers alike.

Discoonnected in the Southwest

My observations from the conference include the following:

  • There are many hard-working organizations seeking to move more disconnected young adults to and through education and training and into the workforce, but there is a need for even greater inter-organizational collaboration. More specifically, there must be greater collaboration among education providers, the private sector and public policymakers.
  • If this effort is to be successful, there must be willing leadership that is driven by a shared vision at the local, state, and regional level.  The ability to engage mayors, local and county boards, and governors in these efforts offers a major opportunity to help disconnected young adults.
  • Before anyone can champion an initiative at the local, state or regional level, there first must be data to make the case. An analysis from Burning Glass, which collects and analyzes data from thousands of job boards and other online services, found that the Southwest region offers a relatively high number of middle-skill job opportunities, which require more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree. Programs that target middle-skills development could make a difference for the region’s disengaged youth.
  • When establishing new collaborations, partners must do so with the end in mind.  Specifically, all partners should know what the desired outcomes are.  Critical to the development of strong models that can be scaled and expanded over time, all partners must know how success will be measured.
  • For those organizations that already have developed an innovative and evidence-based approach to supporting disconnected young adults and are seeking to expand their reach to other communities, “scaling” is a term that is often misunderstood. Before best practices can be scaled, one must first understand what makes the practices distinctive. What is the essential combination of variables that will lead to a successful outcome?

Arizona State University President Michael Crow, a leader of the University Innovation Alliance, observed during the conference: “We have inherited a fixed, antiquated model of education that no longer works. We have developed a culture that is non-adaptive. The system believes that it is the best that it could be.”

I agree with President Crow. If we are to effectively address the challenges facing disconnected young adults, we must begin not by asking what is wrong with these young adults, but by exploring what is wrong with our system that is failing to reach the millions of disconnected young adults. That is our unique opportunity.

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