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The Jobless Young Find Their Voice

The New York Times on May 6, 2012
by Hannah Seligson

Casey Templeton for The New York Times

Young Invincibles, a youth advocacy group, made a stop at the University of Richmond.


THIS may be little consolation to recent graduates who have sent out dozens of résumés with nary a response; who have been turned down for unpaid internships; who have vast amounts of student debt to repay as they continue in jobs as baby sitters and waiters.

But employers say they will hire 10.2 percent more college graduates from the class of 2012 than they did from the class of 2011, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

Nuggets of news like this are welcome as the economy fitfully recovers. Even so, joblessness among the young remains at crisis levels, economists say. In April, the unemployment rate for workers under age 25 was 16.4 percent, compared with 8.1 percent over all.

Those with only some college, or with high school degrees or less, are the worst off. But “every way you cut it — by race or gender, with or without a college degree — young people are just not getting the job opportunities they need, and it will have a lasting impact on their careers,” saidHeidi Shierholz, an economist who studies the labor market at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.

No one wants to see millions of young people sitting idle. So what can be done? Can policies and programs be created to channel them into full-time jobs?

Those questions are entangled in certain truths about the political process. Teachers have the American Federation of Teachers. Gun owners have the N.R.A. The older population has AARP. But where are the advocacy groups for jobless youth?

They are coming. Two movements have sprouted to fight for this generation’s right to move out of the parental basement (or avoid it altogether): the Campaign for Young America and Fix Young America.

In a way, they are the younger siblings of Occupy Wall Street, but with a nonpartisan agenda, more centralized leadership and one specific mission: to help young people find jobs.

“Occupy represented this bottled-up energy and frustration — it was the manifestation that our generation will not be able to reach the American dream,” said Aaron Smith, 30, co-founder of Young Invincibles, a nonprofit group based in Washington that is the force behind the Campaign for Young America. “Now we are trying to harness that energy into something tangible.”

The Campaign for Young America is in the midst of a 21-state bus tour that is set to conduct 100 round tables with young people, Occupy Wall Street protesters, community leaders and entrepreneurs. “One thing we are really focused on is trying to better connect colleges and universities to local employers,” Mr. Smith said. Later this year, the group will endorse specific policy recommendations based on input during the round tables, and host candidate forums, he said.

Fix Young America is supported by members of the nonprofit Young Entrepreneur Council, based in New York. (Officially the new group has a hashtag in front of its name, to reflect its presence on Twitter.)

The group assembled more than two-dozen people — including Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, Representative Patrick McHenry, Republican of North Carolina, university leaders and entrepreneurs — to offer prescriptions for solving youth unemployment.

The ideas were required to have a track record. “Anyone and their mother could come up with ideas, but what we wanted to do with Fix Young America was to get the strongest voices in the room, the ones who showed there was proof in the pudding,” said Scott Gerber, 28, founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council and Fix Young America.

The solutions will be published Wednesday in a book. Mr. Smith, for one, wrote a chapter advocating student loan forgiveness for entrepreneurs who start businesses that create jobs.

Another solution was proposed by Zach Sims, whose chapter focuses on teaching young people JavaScript, the computer programming language. “There are a limited number of things you can do with an English degree,” said Mr. Sims, 21, co-founder of Codecademy, a free Web site that teaches programming and coding. “Coding skills are such a clear path to employment, regardless of your background.”

Mr. Sims suggests teaching coding nationally via sites like Codecademy and creating partnerships with high schools, colleges and local government. He wants to start a “national programming movement” and recently formed a partnership with the White House for a summer program to teach coding to underprivileged youth.

OTHER Fix Young America solutions have already been road-tested on a state level. Senator Wyden’s idea is to expand the Self-Employment Assistance Program, an obscure government program that allows laid-off people to collect unemployment benefits while they start a business. (Regular unemployment insurance requires that a recipient actively search for work.)

Senator Wyden says the program, which is optional and used only by a handful of states, is one way to unstack the deck against young people.

Adam Lowry, 32, and Michael Richardson, 26, took advantage of the program in Oregon, one state that offers it. In May 2009, the two were laid off from their jobs as software engineers (one of those supposedly safe careers) at a start-up in Portland. They both applied for unemployment benefits, but they really wanted to start a company.

Casey Templeton for The New York Times

Aaron Smith, executive director of Young Invincibles, at a discussion at the University of Richmond.

When they found out about the self-employment program, they submitted the business plan for their company, a mobile services provider for app developers. Over six months (the maximum time allowed) they each received around $10,000.

“It was a great solution because we could concentrate on building our business instead of finding contract work,” Mr. Lowry said. Today their company, Urban Airship, has 75 employees and has raised millions in venture funding.

“We are growing like a weed,” Mr. Lowry said, “and the money we got from the Self-Employment Assistance Program was critical. It paid our rent, food and bills, which were really the main expenses because we bought the computers and server space on credit.”

Andrew Yang, another member of Fix Young America, says more college graduates should be steered toward fast-growing companies. He is founder of Venture for America, a nonprofit based in New York that places graduates from top-tier schools at start-ups in cities like Las Vegas and Cincinnati.

“Our goal is to create 100,000 jobs by 2025,” he said. “We think job creation is pretty straightforward: you supply early-stage growth companies in lower-cost cities with talent so they can grow and hire more people, and then you train your best and brightest to become innovators.” Putting it another way, Mr. Yang said, “If you send a Brown University graduate to Goldman Sachs, is that person going to create jobs?”

Venture for America says it works only with companies that have demonstrated the ability to create jobs. The companies pay a salary, $32,000 to $38,000 a year, during a two-year Venture for America fellowship. The first class of Venture for America fellows will graduate in 2014.

Ten fellows are being hired by the Downtown Project, a $350 million effort to revitalize downtown Las Vegas. The project is largely financed by Tony Hsieh, C.E.O. of the online shoe company Zappos, which is based in Las Vegas.

Outside the Ivy League bubble, Nick Friedman, 29, wants to do something about the unemployment rate among veterans — 9.2 percent for those returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. He is co-founder of College Hunks Hauling Junk, a moving and rubbish removal company based in Tampa, Fla. Mr. Friedman, another member of Fix Young America, says one way to help veterans is through franchising. His company hopes to attract more veterans by offering financial incentives.

“Franchises really just require the right leaders to implement strategy and lead. Military personnel have that same training in terms of executing a game plan and leading a team,” Mr. Friedman said. Federal legislation is in the pipeline to create a tax credit for franchise businesses owned by veterans.

It remains to be seen whether these solutions will make a dent in youth joblessness. Many of them stress entrepreneurship, and not everyone wants to be involved in a start-up.

Tom Szymanski, 22, a senior at Rowan University in New Jersey who is majoring in political science and minoring in journalism, says he is concerned about finding a job in public relations when he graduates in December, but he doesn’t want to strike out on his own.

“Right out of college, I want to get my feet on the ground and work for someone else,” he said. “I’ve already taken a big enough risk by taking out $20,000 in loans to go to college.”

Ms. Shierholz, of the Economic Policy Institute, said that what was really needed was more financial stimulus from the government to create jobs. “That would move the dial on youth unemployment in a speedy fashion.”

THE two new groups have attracted lawmakers’ attention in this election year. Last month, Mr. Gerber, along with other entrepreneurs, spoke in front of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, emphasizing ways to help young veterans and advocating loan forgiveness for young entrepreneurs. Michael J. Ference, senior policy adviser for Eric Cantor, who is a Republican of Virginia and the House majority leader, later met with Mr. Gerber to discuss ways to work with the campaign.

Representative McHenry said that he did not agree with all of his fellow contributors to the Fix Young America book, but that the idea of proposing solutions attracted him. “It’s young people with innovative ideas who are going to reform and restructure our economy,” he said. His chapter deals with crowdfunding, which allows the public to invest in start-up companies through the Internet. (Legislation allowing crowdfunding was recently passed.)

Both campaigns stress social media as part of their message, for example by asking for solutions on Twitter and their Web sites. But they are also mobilizing on the ground. Last month, thousands of college students turned out on more than 300 campuses for Fix Young America rallies. They were trying to gain the support not of politicians but of Stephen Colbert, host of “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central.

“He is known as the Oprah of Gen Y,” Mr. Gerber said. “He brings attention to major injustices through humor and satire and that’s what resonates with my generation.” (Mr. Colbert has not indicated whether he will back the effort.)

Although Mr. Colbert is a satirist of right-wing politics, Fix Young America itself says it is nonpartisan. “We didn’t want to be held hostage by political rhetoric and agendas,” Mr. Gerber said.

Like Mr. Gerber, Mr. Smith said the Campaign for Young America did not want to align itself with either political party, because concerns about youth unemployment cut across party lines.

“Both Democrats and Republicans need to listen and respond to the concerns of our generation,” he said.