Boosting Youth Employment

Work Experience Crucial to Boost U.S. Productivity

Shirley Sagawa explains why federal programs to help American youth enter the workforce and serve our country are key to our national economic competitiveness.

Our goal in this series is to offer job creation ideas that can fit squarely within the fiscal bounds of the political climate today in Washington. Some of our ideas will require additional federal spending, but all of our proposals are well within the financial means of the federal government. Others don’t cost anything. All would create jobs.

And jobs are sorely needed. The U.S. economy has gained more than 1.1 million jobs since the labor market hit bottom in September 2010. Yet, we still have almost 7 million jobs fewer than when the recession started in December 2007. In 2009, we laid out a set of initiatives that would generate strong job creation. But after taking aggressive action in 2009 to end the Great Recession and start the economy growing anew, policymakers in Washington today are unwilling to embrace major job creation initiatives.

This week, Center for American Progress Visting Fellow Shirley Sagawa explains why federal programs to help American youth enter the workforce and serve our country are key to our national economic competitiveness.

Young adults across our nation are among the hardest hit by unemployment, with one out of four 16- to 19-year-olds and one out of every seven 20- to 24-year-olds without a job today. The inability of these young adults to find jobs is likely to have long-term effects on their economic prospects, as we noted last year. Young people who initially cannot find a job often suffer consequences that follow them long after a recession ends because their lack of work experience makes them less competitive for future job opportunities, which in turn impairs future U.S. productivity and our global economic competitiveness.

We can address this challenge by placing hundreds of thousands of these young people in national service positions that would fill growing gaps in the services that communities need while equipping young Americans with work skills and experience. No new legislation would be required. Two years ago, Congress passed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act with strong bipartisan support to increase national service to 250,000 positions by 2017, targeting important community priorities.

Sadly, though, this year’s budget deal for fiscal year 2011 ending this September failed to accommodate scheduled growth in the program. Instead, the FY 2011 budget cut thousands of national service positions, leaving many outstanding organizations with fewer resources than they need and other deserving organizations with no AmeriCorps grants at all. AmeriCorps is the main national youth service program, encompassing the AmeriCorps grants program, VISTA, and National Civilian Community Corps, all of which are all funded under the Serve America Act.

Restoring these cuts and putting national service back on track would create 57,000 new youth jobs and enable the more than 14,000 nonprofit groups they would work for to engage 140,000 new national service participants in FY 2012 beginning in October. The additional cost would be approximately $855 million, but the gains would be evident as well in stronger nonprofit groups that will be sorely tested by federal, state, and local cuts, and increasing demand brought on by the still stuttering economic recovery. National service jobs can be targeted to needs unmet by other programs, such as:

  • Helping returning veterans reintegrate
  • Keeping youth on track in school and out
  • Improving the health of low-income communities
  • Reducing energy consumption
  • Rebuilding communities after disasters

One telling case in point: National service organizations have taken the lead in organizing and deploying people who have volunteered in the wake of the nation’s deadliest tornado in six decades in and around Joplin, Missouri.

While national service should not—and legally cannot—displace paid public- or private-sector workers, it can fill gaps in the patchwork of services that are increasingly in demand. In addition, each full-time member in a Serve America Act program often plays the role of recruiting and managing a dozen or more volunteers who each contribute additional hours of service. In Joplin, for example, 180 AmeriCorps members are already on the ground where they have coordinated the work of 33,000 volunteers who have contributed more than 200,000 hours of service.

Even better, federal dollars are typically matched by philanthropic and corporate dollars, creating tremendous leverage. With this multiplier effect, an investment of approximately $15,000 in federal funds enables a young adult to spend a year providing vital services to communities full-time while coordinating hundreds of hours of volunteer service by others. As budgets get tighter, this leverage becomes even more important.

In fact, evidence suggests that quality volunteer engagement is key to building a strong and cost-effective nonprofit sector. Last year, the TCC Group, a strategic planning company for nonprofit groups, in collaboration with Reimagining Service, a national nonprofit coalition, examined its extensive database of organizations and found that those nonprofits that manage more than 50 volunteers (and do it well) have significantly stronger core organizational capacities than other nonprofits. They are more adaptable, more sustainable, and more likely to “go to scale,” according to the research.

In fact, the researchers found that organizations with 10 to 50 volunteers are statistically equally as effective as their counterparts without volunteers on all measures of organizational effectiveness, yet their average annual budgets just over half. In TCC’s database, organizations with between 10 and 50 volunteers have a median budget size of $615,000, while organizations with no volunteers have a median budget size of $1,100,000.

The upshot: Providing additional federal dollars to these types of organizations would be an effective and efficient way to boost youth employment and help nonprofit groups provide the kinds of national services that make our society more fair and compassionate.

Of course, national service positions are not designed to be long-term jobs, even though in the short term they would reduce the unemployment rolls. Still, youth in these jobs learn skills that will put them on a path to careers, often in underserved fields.

National service positions don’t pay well, typically about minimum wage, although they do provide benefits and often money for college or to pay back loans. And yet last year, many national service programs were receiving seven or more applications for every position. These individuals make possible the engagement of many times their number of other volunteers who don’t receive anything but satisfaction for their service And ultimately, communities benefit from the service of both these groups—and are likely to become increasingly dependent on them as nonprofits struggle to meet local needs.

Shirley Sagawa is a Visiting Fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of the 2010 book “The American Way to Change: How National Service Volunteers Are Transforming America.”

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Shirley Sagawa

Senior Fellow