The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced on March 16 a statewide program to help connect young adults to employment. As part of its five-year Carolina Across 100 initiative, Carolina will work with 20 community collaboratives to expand and deepen education and employment pathways for young adults aged 16-24 who are out of school and work.
Along with community partners and statewide leaders in the effort, called “Our State, Our Work: Connecting Young Adults with Their Future,” Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz made the announcement at the Orange County campus of Durham Technical Community College.
“So many people across North Carolina are facing disproportionate burdens and challenges because of COVID-19,” Guskiewicz said. “Carolina Across 100 will leverage the University’s expertise and research and work with communities in all 100 counties across the state to address those issues. This initiative is fundamental to who we are as a university. It builds upon our commitment to public service while also preparing the next generation of leaders to solve the grand challenges of our time.”
Pandemic’s lingering effect on labor markets
The U.S. labor market has been in turmoil since the onset of COVID-19 in March 2020. People lost their jobs as businesses and other organizations closed their doors or laid off staff due to falling revenue. Others left jobs to care for dependents as day care and elder care establishments closed. Some of these employers have now reopened or even expanded but are struggling to hire and retain employees.
Nationally, the overall unemployment rate for workers 16-24 jumped to 24.4% in spring 2020 versus 11.3% for workers 25 and older. Those with the lowest levels of education — below a high school diploma — fared the worst. Already this group — called “opportunity youth” — had a higher percentage of people living in poverty than non-opportunity youth in 2019 (31% versus 16%).
Carolina-led survey reveals communities in need
Anita Brown-Graham, Gladys Hall Coates Distinguished Professor of Public Law and Government, leads the Carolina Across 100 initiative. Her team at the School of Government surveyed over 3,000 North Carolinians in private, public and not-for-profit sectors, representing each of the state’s 100 counties.
“We started this work by listening to people across the state so that we could better understand the ways that COVID-19 has created or exacerbated challenges for their organizations and communities,” Brown-Graham said. “The response was overwhelming, and one area that stood out as especially challenging was the concern for ensuring our workforce could meet the demand for high-quality job opportunities.”
To do that, Brown-Graham’s team will spend the next two years:
- Facilitating a cross-sector collaboration process that allows the participating communities to be confident that they have brought the right stakeholders (e.g., schools, community-based programs, post-secondary institutions, employers, youth leaders and government agencies) to the table to successfully remove barriers and improve the systems that serve opportunity youth.
- Offering a menu of supports to which participating communities have access (e.g. evidence-based programming aimed at meeting educational and non-academic needs of the target population, career counseling, high-demand micro-credentials, resources to more effectively market existing programs, guided listening sessions with opportunity youth, technical assistance and resources for employers seeking to hire and retain opportunity youth, program management, storytelling about the experiences and triumphs of opportunity youth, information on funding opportunities and grant writing).
Tai Huynh is a Carolina graduate and a member of the Chapel Hill Town Council. He said that because his parents were refugees from Vietnam, and his father and grandfather worked as tradesmen, this initiative is very dear to him. “This will ensure that members of our community for whom four-year college is not a feasible or desired path after high school are given the opportunity to learn and earn a living wage,” Huynh said. “I’m excited for what this program will do to develop our labor market, attract new employers and expand employment opportunities in the skilled construction trades, biotech, health technology, cybersecurity and other high-demand occupations.”
Carolina Across 100 is a five-year initiative whose goal is to aid community-driven recovery and build sustainable efforts in all 100 counties by providing human resources, data insights, coaching, facilitation, coordination efforts and program design.