Posted on the National Youth Employment Coalition Blog

More than eight years into an economic recovery, the labor market is not bringing young people into the labor force. Approximately 4.6 million young Americans remain disconnected from school and work, according to Measure of America. Changing how the labor market works for young people requires a national strategy for systemic reform. A transition to a green economy could be a catalyzing force for this vision.

The Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality’s (GCPI) The Youth Opportunity Guarantee: A Framework for Success proposes a Youth Opportunity Guarantee, a bold vision to promise every young person (ages 16 to 24) three things—high school, postsecondary education, and work—designed to maximize their opportunity for long-term career success. These three components would intersect rather than occurring separately and one after the other.

Establishing the guarantee would unwind racial and economic injustice by making a diverse set of educational and career trajectories available and ensuring that all young people receive resources and support in proportion to the barriers they face.

Similarly, the coming transition to a green economy must be a vehicle for racial and economic justice.

An economy built around green energy is not a matter of “if” but “how.” According to a recent report by the United Nation’s climate science body, humans have until 2030 to slash greenhouse-gas emissions by 45 percent.  The growing climate crisis necessitates national mobilization—and young people are leading with economic and racial justice in mind. Young adults already make up the backbone of organizations like the Sunrise Movement, a leading force behind the Green New Deal. The Green New Deal offers solutions for tackling the climate crisis by calling for a job guarantee to mobilize the talent needed to turn back warming. More than 3 in 4 young people support this green job guarantee.

The Green Economy Offers New Work Opportunities

The Youth Opportunity Guarantee: A Framework for Success cites the College and Career Academy Support Network’s definition of work-based learning (WBL), which identifies four stages: (1) career awareness, (2) career exploration, (3) career preparation, and (4) career training.

The coming green job market will radically increase the availability of apprenticeable occupations, which offer important early work experiences. Whether caulking to increase energy efficiency, helping to install snap-together solar panels, or reforesting urban areas, green-collar work is full of opportunities to combine school with entry-level work that helps young people explore their career interests. If their interest persists, these jobs place them on the road to a career with family-sustaining wages.

A Green Economy Will Bring the Youth Opportunity Guarantee to Rural Areas

Many rural areas lack the kind of education and employment programs for youth that result in long-term career success for all young people. They also tend to have fewer available jobs than suburban and urban areas.  Fortunately, many of the best places in the country for wind and solar power generation are rural areas.

In Iowa, heavy rains occur twice as frequently as they did a century ago according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, and crop yields are falling due to heat stress. But the state has taken steps in the right direction: Iowa Lakes Community College started the nation’s first Associate in Applied Science Degree in Wind Energy and Turbine Technology in 2004. In New York, where the state has passed its own Green New Deal, ports up and down the Hudson River will expand to help transport wind turbines to growing offshore wind farms. Today, wind-turbine technician jobs pay a median wage of $53,880, with projected job growth of 96 percent between 2016 and 2026. This work primarily takes place in the states’ rural areas, offering an opportunity for young people to stay in their communities and attain good jobs with an associate’s degree or certificate.

A Youth Opportunity Guarantee combined with the growing green economy can change the odds for the nation’s rural regions.

Collaborative Local Partnerships Will Get This Done

For the guarantee to be a driver of racial and economic justice, community-driven decision-making is a must. Ambitious antipoverty programs have floundered over the years due to top-down planning that doesn’t take the unique contours of communities into account – or that fail to meaningfully incorporate and resource low-income communities and communities of color.

GCPI’s report recommends that communities use a collective impact approach, which prioritizes commitments from key players toward shared goals, implemented through a “backbone” organization that keeps plans on track. Many other, more grassroots structures for organizing and implementing big projects could work well too, such as sociocracy and consensus-based decision-making. These latter approaches may be time-intensive, challenging, and require the active buy-in of many more people, but new decision-making processes may be needed to achieve better outcomes.

There’s a Plan to Do This

The good news is we know what works to reconnect young people with education and employment. With access to high-quality training, credentials, and work experiences, opportunity youth can achieve economic independence and thrive, becoming the employees, entrepreneurs, and leaders who will propel our economy in the years and decades to come.

The Youth Opportunity Guarantee: A Framework for Success describes a process for implementing the guarantee. After a community comes together with the common purpose of implementing the Youth Opportunity Guarantee, a community assessment will illuminate strengths and needs. Shared goals will help communities focus on specific outcomes, bolstered by data. Supported by new federal commitments such as those described in the report, community partnerships will flourish and expand their work and adapt to new challenges.

By scaling these approaches, backed by a federal guarantee of education and employment and the urgency of the transition to a green economy, we can make the guarantee a reality.


Thomas Showalter is the Executive Director of the National Youth Employment Coalition