In recent years, our nation’s cities have attracted young people who are poised to thrive. High achievers—whether they are super-lawyers, political powerhouses or star chefs—flock to urban centers to chase their ambitions and find success. Their stories are the stuff of TV shows and newspaper headlines. However, the glamorous stories of the young rising stars in our cities eclipse the stories of young people—many of whom are still residents of the communities in which they grew up—whose lives are standing still and who have limited access to opportunity. The disparity between these youths and their high-wattage counterparts is striking. In many ways, Washington, D.C., is a case study in this kind of disparity and in the issues of youth unemployment and disconnection. This is particularly true for the District’s Wards 7 and 8, where poverty is high and the unemployment rate is 9.6 percent and 12.5 percent respectively. For Black and Latino teens across the entire District, the unemployment rate is equally as high. The Brookings Institute estimates that 8,500 teens and 21,500 young people in the District are both
out of school and the workforce, a population researchers refer to as "disconnected youth." The reasons for the District’s staggering youth unemployment numbers are myriad, but a major part of the underlying problem is an incomplete high school education. Society might be quick to label such young people as underachievers. However, for those of us who work with this group on a daily basis, we see a surprising level of resilience and adaptability. These are the very qualities that could help them succeed in work and life.
The Resilient Ones
Brittany, a 22-year-old Department of Employment Services Youth Tech graduate, is a perfect example of the rugged determination our young people use to succeed against the formidable odds that they face. In 2015, Brittany was a single mother working as a cashier at Wendy's, struggling to find a career to support her family, including her unborn child. Although she was several months pregnant, Brittany was one of the most successful students in her cohort. After completing the Youth Tech program, she stayed home for five months with her new baby, and dedicated the time to obtaining additional IT certifications. Brittany is now considered a triple threat, holding three
CompTIA certifications: A+, Network+ and Security+. Once she was ready to go to work, she used the Youth Tech program’s network of graduates to land an interview with a federal government contractor at the Census Bureau. Brittany is now a service desk analyst supporting thousands of federal government employees.
I Know the Struggle
When I meet young people like Brittany, and listen to their stories, I think of my own uphill climb out of deep poverty and homelessness. Growing up I could not see a path forward that led to a successful and fulfilling career. In high school, though, I went on a college tour with my class and realized a better life was within reach if I could get my degree. A teacher told me that I would be better suited for beauty school rather than college. I ignored that teacher’s advice, went to college, graduated and launched my career. For young people who grow up in D.C. to have the same future opportunities as the young people who move here, we need a community of partners in the business of social good to drastically reduce the District’s unemployment and help to bridge the education gap. Day in and day out, my team and I work to reduce youth unemployment by building and strengthening partnerships with organizations that share our mission of lifting youth out of poverty and into the middle class. Our cities are home to hundreds of organizations that are in the business of hope and social good. It is time that they joined us in our efforts to help young people overcome major employment challenges and reconnect with the community that could offer them the opportunity to thrive.
Unique Morris-Hughes is interim director of the D.C. Department of Employment Services. Previously, she was appointed to lead a turnaround of the D.C. Department of Employment Services, where she served as Chief of Performance, Data, Innovation and Youth Opportunities.