Recognizing and cultivating potential wherever it is found in the community boosts the economy.

To keep up with global economic changes and workforce demands, public and private partnerships are creating opportunities for some of our most vulnerable populations: youth who are disengaged and disconnected from education and employment – otherwise known as Opportunity Youth.  According to The Columbus Foundation’s Opportunity Youth report, “Their disconnection is costly. For each year youth are off track, they produce a substantial fiscal and social burden, to the tune of $37,450 per individual in lost productivity and tax revenue and higher expenditures on criminal justice, public assistance, and healthcare.” Why does that matter? “The combined economic burden of disconnected youth in the Columbus metro area exceeds three-quarter of a billion dollars each year,” according to the Opportunity Youth report. Not only that, we cannot begin to account for the loss of creativity, ingenuity and potential.

While using the word “opportunity” to describe these young people might seem ironic to some, others recognize that cultivating their potential will boost our economy and create a steady workforce.  Fortune 500’s, savvy start-ups, state and local governments and nonprofit organizations across the nation and locally are investing in labor market research, entrepreneurship cultivation, leadership development and more. For example, last year AT&T partnered with Genesys Works, a training and corporate internship program for disadvantaged high school students. Through this partnership, AT&T continues to help young adults achieve life and career goals—an investment in the development of skilled workers and consumers.

Individuals and organizations are investing financial and social capital to create supportive communities and opportunities for young people.  Philanthropists are making financial investments to ensure that resources are made available to remove barriers to success in education and employment for Opportunity Youth.  Local non-profits like Starfish Alliance, Inc. and the Ohio Department of Education’s Community Connectors initiative are helping youth develop social capital through relationship-based programming (mentoring) that includes an introduction to entrepreneurship.

In the technology industry, it takes an investment of approximately $4,800 to train and launch one at-risk youth into a career path.  Other industries (i.e., food & beverage) are making early investments in subsidized employment models with basic workplace culture components creating a pipeline of talented, loyal employees with the right technical and social skills. Opportunity Youth who have access to such programs and early exposure to employment thrive in the workplace and go on to find career pathways. These investments are increasing workforce diversity, enhancing productivity, and broadening the consumer base.

Opportunities are not only created through investments in communities, The Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio (CDF-Ohio) recognizes the need for investments in individuals.  Each year, five scholarships are presented to extraordinary high school seniors who have exhibited resiliency, academic excellence and community leadership in the face of tremendous adversity through CDF-Ohio’s annual Beat the Odds® scholarship program.

The stories represented by each scholarship recipient highlight the need for public investments in policies, practices and programs that address adverse childhood experiences, trauma, food insecurity and other factors that contribute to the challenges of Opportunity Youth. The investments made by public and private partnerships create better outcomes for the youth, the community and the economy.  

Ashon McKenzie is the Policy Director for Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio; and is a seasoned attorney, public affairs professional and speaker. (amckenzie@childrensdefense.org, 614-221-2244)