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Young Adults Look for Their Cornerstone of the American Dream: Opportunity

by Gerald Chertavian   •  

In the United States, the opportunities that are open to people should never be restricted by their zip code. Yet far too often, instead of hard work, ambition and perseverance determining one’s future, the place where a person grows up can heavily influence his or her chances for success and upward mobility.   

Take Terrence Thompson. Terrence worked hard in high school, earning a spot at Southern Illinois University. He arrived there several years ago with big ambitions and a determined work ethic. Yet Terrence eventually returned home far short of graduation, with limited career prospects. It wasn’t because he lacked ability or motivation.

Rather, his mother’s diagnosis of Lupus meant Terrence needed to help support his younger siblings. He’d already been working his way through school. When he upped his hours to help his family, his grades suffered, and he was dismissed for poor academic performance. Like so many other young adults, life circumstances and a lack of support networks derailed Terrence’s dreams.

Terrence’s challenges are not unique. For the first time, we are now able to compare just how disparate opportunity is across this country. The Opportunity Index, developed by our partners at Opportunity Nation and Measure of America, measures sixteen indicators of community health and vitality in all 50 states, and grades more than 3,000 American counties from A through F. The Index goes far beyond income-based measures of poverty, by looking at the supports, social capital and professional networks that too often determine the limits of one’s potential. Cook County, Illinois, Terrence’s home, received a C+ this year. (You can check out your hometown’s score here).


It turns out the two indicators that track most closely to a community’s Opportunity Score are the percentage of people living in poverty and the percentage of youth who lack a stable connection to school or work, so-called “disconnected youth.” In Cook County, more than 15.3% of all 16-24 year-olds fall into this category, called opportunity youth. Among African-Americans in Chicagoland, like Terrence, the number is 25%.

Those numbers should make each of us cringe. Terrence’s economic disconnection is not just an individual tragedy. With 15% of all young people nationally currently not working or in school, we all face steep costs — a lost generation of human potential, increased social burden and lost tax revenue.

America’s most forward thinking companies understand that. That’s why 250 of them partner with our organization,Year Up, to access a diverse pipeline of motivated, loyal – and overlooked – talent. For companies like Bank of America, LinkedIn, and JPMorgan Chase, our students are not lost causes or charity cases. In fact, each of these companies contributes $22,000 for each Year Up student they host during a six-month internship. Students first complete six months of rigorous classroom training, with high levels of support to help them surmount outside challenges.

Year Up’s students are not looking for charity. By the time they walk through our doors, as Terrence eventually did, most have already overcome significant obstacles on their pathway to adulthood. What they want most of all is a chance to take ownership of their futures, to break free of the limited futures that their zip codes predicted for them. What they’re looking for is the cornerstone of the American Dream: an opportunity.

And these students prove every day that our partners’ faith in them is deserved. Nationwide, 84% of Year Up alumni are employed or in school full-time within four months of graduation. Those who are working earn an average of $15/hour, or $30,000/year for salaried employees.

In Terrence’s case, he never looked back after enrolling in a Year Up program. After graduating with a 3.87 GPA and completing an internship at Aon, a leading risk management, insurance and human resources multinational, he landed a job there in Information Technology, where he works today while completing his bachelor’s degree in Computer Information Systems. He is on track to graduate in 2015, and his future is limitless. For Aon, his family and our country, he is a social and economic asset.

There are millions of young Americans who need a chance to develop their skills and prove themselves in the workplace. If we shift our perceptions and talent sourcing practices accordingly, we will discover a deep well of talent that can help us close our skills gap and fuel the U.S. economy for decades. In the process, we’d also go a long way toward restoring the basic premise of the American Dream: that where we come from need never determine where we’re going.

Gerald Chertavian

Founder and CEO, Year Up

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