Youth Service is a Powerful Strategy for Youth Employment

Reports from the US and many other regions in the world continue to show that young people are bearing the brunt of the recession.

In the US, the Center for American Progress reports that minority workers, teens and less-educated workers have unemployment rates far above the national average. The latest available data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in July 2008, 3.4 million young people in the United States were unemployed representing a youth unemployment rate of 14 percent, the highest rate recorded for July since 1992.

According to the National Youth Employment Council, “an unprecedented “age twist” in employment rates occurred in the US over the past 8 years with older workers (55+) improving their employment rates strongly while teens and 20-24 year old males reached new post-World War II lows.”

This trend is true in many parts of the developing and developed world. In several countries, young people represent the largest cohort in society yet experience some of the lowest employment rates.

The Middle East/North Africa region has an unemployment rate near 15 percent, the highest of any region in the world. Young people in the region experience even greater unemployment with average rates of 25 percent, far exceeding the world average of 14 percent. The Economist reported that in the UK, the class of 2009 is the most debt-ridden group of college graduates in Britain’s history and is the least likely to find a job with unemployment rates among young people aged 18-24 rising to 17.3 percent over the past year.

Despite these discouraging statistics, youth service has been growing as a powerful strategy for preparing young people to find rewarding employment. Young people who are engaged in meaningful service to their communities gain valuable, real-world skills that improve their employability in today’s competitive labor markets, thus combating the high rates of youth unemployment.

Studies have shown that youth who participate in organized community engagement programs are more likely to find gainful employment. Through service opportunities, unemployed young people can participate in structured opportunities to apply their talents and abilities while building skills and habits that transfer to economic viability.

As illustrated in ICP’s 2006 report Service As a Strategy for Combating Youth Unemployment, civic engagement programs of sufficient duration and sophistication can tap energetic young people to help address critical needs such as environmental sustainability, public health and education, while also providing a mechanism for young people to build skills such as leadership, responsibility, the ability to take supervision and make decisions, self-management, team-building and cooperation.

Instead of feeling disempowered and alienated, young people engaged in service projects achieve a sense of purpose and accomplishment that counteracts pressures to get involved in unhealthy behaviors and sets them on the right track to participate in a productive and industrious workforce.

Many young people in the United States are taking advantage of these service opportunities with applications to AmeriCorps, Peace Corps and other service programs having seen dramatic increases. According to the 2009 Volunteering in America study released by the Corporation for National and Community Service, over 441,000 more young people aged 16-24 volunteered in 2008 than 2007, representing an increase from about 7.8 million to more than 8.2 million.

The report also indicated that more non-profit organizations are increasing volunteer opportunities to respond to shrinking budgets in the recession. Between September 2008 and March 2009, more than a third (37 percent) of nonprofit organizations reported increasing the number of volunteers they use, and almost half (48 percent) foresaw increasing their usage of volunteers in the coming year.

As young people experience greater rates of unemployment, service opportunities provide an opportunity to gain valuable skills for finding employment while making concrete contributions to organizations and communities affected by the downturn economy.

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