By Glenn Fee
Multnomah County, along with much of the nation, is facing parallel challenges: insufficient skilled workers to fill open positions and unacceptably high unemployment rates among young adults. Indeed, while the employment prospects are positive for those with education beyond high school, the news isn’t great for those with a high school diploma or less, typically people coming from low-income backgrounds. Despite a broad economic recovery, those with only a high school diploma or less are falling farther behind. According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, a staggering 95% of the 11.6 million jobs gained in the recent economic recovery have gone to those with at least some college education.
The challenge for Oregon is particularly great. Low-income students graduate from high school at lower rates than their peers and are far more likely to be unemployed. More than 61% of Oregon’s Opportunity Youth, young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are out of work and out of school, live below 200% of the federal poverty level.
The risk to these young people and their future is clear, but the risk to our community is great as well. A 2012 report by the Cowan Institute estimates the economic burden of each unemployed youth (lost tax revenue, criminal justice expenses, health cost, etc.) to be $13,900 annually. In Multnomah County, where 11% of our young people are Opportunity Youth, that represents a cost of more than $121 million each year. Yes, we need to do more to support these young adults to earn a meaningful postsecondary credential. But, many of these young adults need to work right now.
Oregon employers – particularly in fields such as manufacturing, health care, and IT – are concerned about their future pipeline of skilled workers. By connecting Opportunity Youth with jobs that will help them gain valuable skills and experience that place them on a pathway to a meaningful career, we can help our region’s employers close a growing skills gap. More importantly, we’re placing some of our most vulnerable youth on a pathway to success, and a future in our community where they will be able to afford homes, raise a family, and contribute to our region’s vitality.
Last May, Gateway to College National Network (GtCNN) held a Jobs and Career Fair in conjunction with our Gateway to College program at PCC. We hosted 24 employers, ranging from Salt and Straw to OHSU to Silicon Forest Electronics. Some of these employers had jobs they were looking to fill immediately, and all of them were eager to connect with a population of young people who are critical to their future workforce needs.
At the urging of employers and many of our community partners, GtCNN will host a regional ReConnect Jobs Fair in April 2018. The fair will bring together up to 50 Portland-based employers, 500 youth, and dozens of community volunteers to connect young adults with jobs and other work-based learning opportunities. Youth who have not graduated high school will have the opportunity to enroll in Gateway to College or another high school completion program. Volunteers will help students prepare resumes and cover letters, and hold mock interviews. Employers will offer a minimum of 200 job and work-based learning opportunities for Opportunity Youth who attend the fair.
Portland and Multnomah County will become stronger by supporting opportunities for our most vulnerable citizens. In fact, we can’t afford not to.