Productive and Engaged: Helping Disconnected Youth Forge Better Lives

By Rohit Agarwal and Steven Hunt
Sep 15, 2016 9:00 AM ET

Around the world, youth unemployment is more than double the general rate, and perhaps three times the number of unemployed are underemployed, working in casual or dead-end jobs. This pattern holds true in the United States where youth unemployment is over 10 percent, compared to 4.9 percent for the labor force as a whole.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, more than 100,000 residents between the ages of 16 and 24 do not work or attend school. The consequences of so many young people adrift from the economic mainstream is troubling, and could be serious: economic underperformance, social unrest, and worsening income inequality.

We think the Bay Area can do better, and that the time to act is now.

The place to start is by creating opportunities for unemployed youth. Many have not completed college or high school and have not developed marketable skills. Without this education, they may not have the necessary mindsets, behaviors and attitudes required to compete for jobs and meet the specific demands of work. Meanwhile, according to a 2014 CareerBuilder study, 54 percent of employers said they have positions available for which they cannot find qualified candidates. Clearly, there is a chance to close this “skills gap” with qualified youth, ready to work.

Helping disconnected youth worldwide to connect to work is the goal of Generation, the inaugural project of the McKinsey Social Initiative (MSI), an independent nonprofit founded in 2015 by McKinsey & Company. Generation began Bay Area operations in 2015 with a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) program and then a Hospitality program. In 2016, in partnership with The Stride Center, a Bay Area nonprofit that provides comprehensive IT career development programs and services to low-income adults, Generation began a comprehensive IT program. Generation Bay Area has graduated 158 people. Eighty percent, are employed or in the final rounds of interviewing. The program is still young, but the results and feedback from participants have been encouraging.

“How do I thank an organization of people that have all taken part to have me standing here taught, certified, and ready for the world? I will always be grateful,” asked Generation student Marisol Munoz in her graduation speech.

Generation is at work in other US cities and is also active in India, Kenya, Mexico and Spain. Since its inception in 2014, Generation’s nearly 4,400 graduates have done well, with both high placement rates—80 percent or more in every country—and high praise from employers. Based on this track record, and bolstered by our collaboration with the Stride Center and other partners, we are codifying our key findings on how to create an effective skills-to-employment program. Here are four important lessons:

Get employers involved. Work with employers from the start to define the program and curriculum, so young adults learn the skills most important for the job. Early and sustained employer participation also helps increase their confidence and, as a result, they are more likely to hire from the program. The GenStride IT program has been fortunate to have the proactive involvement of many world class companies including Chevron, Microsoft, Symantec, LinkedIn, NetSuite and Box.

Here’s a perspective from Paul Chapman, Chief Information Officer at Box:

We have youths today that are disadvantaged through no fault of their own, and here we have a tremendous opportunity to help change that. Great organizations like MSI and the Stride Center work with students to help them get certified, but then need help in preparing students for entering the workplace, everything from corporate environment exposure, resume reviews, mock interviewing with direct feedback and in professionally connecting students with the broader Tech community.

There is no substitute for experience so leveraging the already taken student initiative to obtain certified skills and bridging into employment that starts building experience is crucial. At Box we are big believers in giving back and leveraging our resources to help bridge this gap by helping Stride Center students with employment preparation.

Integrate technical and “soft” skills training. It goes without saying that technical skills and knowledge are essential to success on the job, but “soft” skills are also essential. All of the employers we interviewed as we developed our IT curriculum prioritized demonstration of critical behaviors (such as punctuality) and critical mindsets (such as persistence) over mastery of technical topics when choosing whom to hire and promote. Having a “growth mindset,” for example, is an important asset. IT is constantly changing, those who demonstrate the willingness to learn new and progressively more complex technologies are more likely to get the job and then progress in their careers. The key, then, is to identify the most important skills, both technical and “soft,” for each position and integrate them into the coursework.

Provide support all along the way. Many Generation participants have struggled in the existing education-to-employment system; providing “more of the same” is a recipe for failure. Instead, address the whole student with hands-on advice, feedback, and mentoring not only during the training period, but also as they acclimate to the workplace.  In GenStride’s IT program, for example, students are supported by a life-coach who helps them with everything from dealing with emergency situations to securing social services to helping with transportation.

Collect data and use it to improve. From the day that participants apply, Generation tracks their progress, from training into the workforce and beyond. By doing so, we can identify what works, and what can be done better.

The goal of Generation and the Stride Center is to provide young people with the skills necessary to acquire more than just a job. We want them to start meaningful careers that will help them craft a successful and fulfilling life—and so achieve their small piece of the American dream.

Rohit Agarwal is the USA Program Manager for Generation.

Steven Hunt is Associate Executive Director of the Stride Center.

To learn more about McKinsey Social Initiative (MSI)'s Generation program, visit the website and follow Generation on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.