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Broken Rungs: Are We Building Strong Strategies for Opportunity Youth On a Shaky Ladder?

March 10, 2016

Today’s blog is written by AmeriCorps Alums’ Co-Executive Director Mary Bruce (full bio below), and is part of AmeriCorps Alums’ REALTalk series on race, equity, and AmeriCorps alumni as leaders.  

 national service stockThe Center for American Progress’ new report, Utilizing National Service as a 21st Century Workforce Strategy for Opportunity Youth, offers compelling and important proposals to better equip the United States’ 5.6 million “opportunity youth” for full and meaningful employment. Authors Tracey Ross, Shirley Sagawa, and Melissa Boteach present solid evidence that national service is a proven on-ramp and accelerator for “young people who have experienced multiple challenges … [and who] often need more than just skills training to resume their education and employment.” The authors also offer new and energizing proposals to supercharge service as a solution for opportunity youth. In particular, their proposal for Service Catalyst Grants to provide wraparound supports for opportunity youth is a thoughtful mix of compassion and pragmatism.

I agree: national service programs are a powerful 21st century workforce strategy. 

Yes, but: national service programs are one rung on a shaky ladder of economic opportunity. And, if not rethought with proposals beyond what Ross, Sagawa, and Boteach outline, these national service programs could be another broken rung on the ladder to opportunity, rather than the boost they intend to be. In order for national service to be a sustained and powerful intervention supporting opportunity youth, the national service sector needs to expand its approach in four critical areas: data transparency, programmatic incentives, career support resources, and systemic bias in employment.

Here are four ways we can improve our approach and better support opportunity youth AmeriCorps members and alumni on their career paths.

  1. Provide public and transparent data about Corps member outcomes. While there are some notable programmatic exceptions, there is currently no systemic, transparent understanding of life after service. For example, of the nearly one million individuals who have served since the founding of AmeriCorps, we know little about their employment outcomes. This is particularly true when considering racial and socio-economic considerations since the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS, the federal agency that administers AmeriCorps) has not released the racial or economic demographics of its participants since 2008. While we know black youth experience the highest rates of youth disconnection {at 6 percent, followed by Native Americans (20.3 percent), Latinos (16.3), whites (11.3) and Asian Americans (7.9)}, we do not know the outcomes for national service Corps members by race.

While CNCS has in recent years accelerated its research and data development agenda around alumni outcomes (including in this report), much remains unknown. One exciting new online solution, the Service Year Exchange, could be a place to generate field-wide data on life after service. The exchange is a place where young people can find opportunities to serve and could also become a place to survey and share those individuals’ post-service experiences. As more organizations join the exchange, a richer community will emerge from which to evaluate national service alumni outcomes.

  1. Create incentives for national service programs to track and support “life after service” training. National service programs are increasingly responsible for ensuring their members are equipped to deliver on their core mission, which leaves little time to support Corps members’ longer-term employment development needs. Ross, Sagawa, and Boteach rightly call for a waiving of the 20 percent cap to the amount of time that Corps members can spend on personal and professional development.

More than additional time for training, however, AmeriCorps and other national service programs need incentives to provide high-quality professional development. For example, in current CNCS grant requirements, programs must maintain a 90% retention rate of members through their service year, but are not required to report on “life after AmeriCorps” outcomes of members (e.g. “what percentage of Corps members report they felt equipped in their job search,” and  “what percentage were employed or in school within two months of service”). Grantors, including CNCS, state commissions, and private funders could provide resources, training, and incentives for programs to create and report on Corps members’ development and professional outcomes.

  1. Provide comprehensive career supports to Corps members. According to our 2014 survey, only one in three AmeriCorps alumni who responded to the survey felt prepared to launch “life after AmeriCorps.” Rates can be assumed to be even higher for alumni who are not connected to formal professional networks or who face multiple barriers to opportunity (e.g. chronic unemployment, limited formal education, racial biases in hiring practices, etc.). The AmeriCorps and national service network should work to create world-class professional and leadership development services to support their members and alumni, including – and especially – a strong programmatic element for Corps members and alums who face multiple and colluding circumstances that create barriers to their economic mobility. AmeriCorps Alums is working hard to provide career supports, and we are eager for CNCS to reinstate previously-slashed funding streams for professional development and training – both for Corps members directly and for staff to be better equipped to deliver trainings.
  1. Work with nonprofit partners to address systemic employment inequities, especially in the nonprofit sector. Many AmeriCorps alums’ first jobs after service are in the nonprofit sector or community where they served. Data show that two in three alumni go into the nonprofit or government sector. (This data is not currently available by race or economic background.) Unfortunately, as Monisha Kapila points out in her recent article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the nonprofit sector struggles with diversity, racial equity and inclusion in its talent pipeline. For example, Kapila writes, the sector “expects aspiring professionals to work for little or no pay in entry-level roles…. Factor in the higher levels of student debt facing college graduates today—particularly black students—and it becomes clearer why fewer people of color end up working at nonprofits, let alone moving into leadership roles.” According to a BoardSource survey, 89 percent of nonprofit CEOs are white. If national service is to be an employment solution for opportunity youth, as a sector, we must address the employment inequities they will face in the sector.

National service will only be a true “21st Century Workforce Strategy for Opportunity Youth” if it acknowledges and addresses the systemic economic and racial inequities it may perpetuate through its current talent development practices. As Kapila writes, “nonprofits and their leaders must work together — as individuals, as organizations, and as a sector … to put equity in the center.” AmeriCorps Alums is dedicated to this work. We are creating resources both for Corps members, programs, and alumni to advance their own careers – and to advance this mission. Alums, along with a coalition of organizations, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Public Allies, and ProInspire, are starting a movement to create a social sector workforce that reflects today’s America—one that is truly diverse and equitable. We hope everyone will join AmeriCorps Alums in this work and put #equityinthecenter.

Mary Bruce 1Author Bio: Mary Bruce is an AmeriCorps alumna (The Latin American Youth Center, 1999-2000) and a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (Morocco, 2004-2006). She has spent her career supporting the scale and impact of the nonprofit sector, including through work with America’s Promise Alliance, the College Board, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Grad Nation campaign, and MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership. She sits on the national advisory council of New Politics, an organization that gives Americans who have served the tools and guidance to win elections and become the transformational leaders America needs. Mary earned her MPA in Domestic Policy from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University and a B.A. in Poverty Studies from the University of Virginia.

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