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Creating opportunity while building our workforce

May 19, 2016

Authored by Chamber President, James Rooney and Mark Culliton, Founder & CEO of College Bound Dorchester for Commonwealth Magazine.

Looking at a city like Boston, it immediately becomes clear that there is a need to bring more economic opportunity to communities like Roxbury and Dorchester. For many young people born into these communities, reaching economic security requires a long swim against the tide of low educational attainment, pathways of crime and violence, and cycles of generational poverty. We know that sections of these neighborhoods are held back by violence and fear, and that this in turn impacts businesses throughout the city and our economy as a whole. But we can change that.

We need to employ a variety of tools, but if we target the most vulnerable young people in communities with intentional and comprehensive educational interventions that equip them to use their natural charisma and leadership abilities toward college and career success, they can become powerful forces for positive change that contribute to their communities instead of taking away from them. When young people transition from being a gang member or being incarcerated to college applicants and students they can also transition into positive neighborhood influencers who hold the key to sustainable economic success and a more robust workforce.  But to make this happen we need to focus on and support them on their educational journey.

With an associate’s degree, students earn 40 percent more than with a high school credential, are 67 percent less likely to be unemployed, and 97 percent less likely to be criminally-involved. Furthermore, we know that getting one profoundly off-track young person from the corner to the college classroom saves the Commonwealth approximately $426,000.

Targeting off-track young people can also be beneficial to businesses. According to a report from the National Skills Coalition, middle-skill jobs represent about 46 percent of employment in Massachusetts, yet only about 37 percent of workers are classified as having these skills. Middle-skill jobs are defined as requiring more education than a high school credential, but less than a four-year degree such as paralegals, radiology technicians and civil engineering technicians. The demand for this type of position is expected to remain strong through 2020, with 43 percent of job openings classified as middle-skill. Unfortunately, as the demand grows, so will the divide between the number of open positions and candidates qualified to fill them.

Already, many businesses have open middle-skill positions that go unfilled. Not only are these unfilled positions a barrier for companies looking to grow and expand, they are also opportunities wasted. There is an untapped labor market in communities with high unemployment and low educational attainment, where, given the right support, there are thousands of young people searching for an open door. College Bound sees the youth we serve as the answer for companies struggling to find middle-skill candidates. Not only do these youth bring leadership abilities, but they have also encountered adversity and persevered to overcome it—a skill highly valuable in the job market.

We must shift how we think about the most off-track young people in our city and begin to see them for their potential instead of their past mistakes. We must be willing to invest in the education of those often called “least likely to succeed” and put in the work to reach those many consider unreachable. If we do these things, we can ensure that our young people succeed, our communities thrive, and our businesses grow.

Mark Culliton is the founder & CEO of College Bound Dorchester.  James E. Rooney is the president & CEO of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and a board member of College Bound Dorchester. 

View this article on Commonwealth Magazine here.