Around this time of year, a number of our friends are celebrating their graduations from both high school and college. Yet for far too many, the transition from student life to the working world is filled with uncertainty. High unemployment and underemployment mean less opportunity for more members of our generation. And as rising income inequality and a recovering economy loom large, the availability of good jobs are crucial for young Americans to achieve economic security.
So why are more young people unemployed or underemployed? Though a slow recovery and a natural discrepancy between youth and overall employment are partially to blame, our education system is responsible as well. Student loan debt and tuition costs continue to rise, saddling young people with a heavy burden in a dismal job market. Meanwhile, many students take out loans and don’t complete their degree.
While it is clear that we need reforms to ease student debt, lower tuition costs, as well as improve degree completion rates, it is equally evident that young people need more options to help transition from school to the working world. A four-year college is a terrific option for many students, but it’s not the only way – vocational schools and two-year colleges can equip many students with the right skills for today’s job market, and it’s likely to cost a lot less.
There is no political panacea for solving the nation’s education and employment woes. Indeed, we must pursue a menu of policy options that not only addresses tuition costs, student loan payment plan reform, and degree completion, but also helps get more students employed in good paying jobs.
One option is to expand vocational programs in high schools so that schools graduate students who are both college and career ready. Federal funding for vocational training has decreased from $12 million in 2002 to just over $7 million in 2011, according to the Department of Education. That is why we need state and local governments to help expand vocational programs that serve as a career bedrock for young Americans. This is not to discourage four-year degrees – indeed, college remains vitally important to economic mobility, but we must also ensure there’s a range of options.
Furthermore, Congress should streamline overlapping federal workforce development programs. Currently, there are 47 — nearly all of which, 44, are overlapping, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office. As government commits to expanding vocational programs, it must also maximize the efficiency of existing programs because overlap leads to wasted resources and bureaucratic confusion.
Finally, colleges, universities and the federal government must work together to reduce the financial burden of unpaid internships and ultimately seek to eliminate them altogether. These, too, limit opportunity for students, particularly low- and middle-income students, because for many, unpaid internships are unattainable. Too often this leads to unfortunate self-selection; indeed, many of our classmates and our friends refused unpaid internships in Washington because they couldn’t afford to spend a summer in the nation’s capital without financial support. This only perpetuates a cycle of privilege and wealth.
What’s more, paid interns are more likely to find jobs later. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), 63.1% of paid interns in 2013 landed a job compared to 37% of unpaid interns. Unpaid interns were only 2% more likely than non-interns to get job offers. Part of the transition from unpaid internships to paid ones involves imbuing those positions with more value for both the employer and the intern. Through more affordable and more valuable internships, more young people will be better trained for jobs.
Though we come from different political backgrounds, we must together engage our communities on an intergenerational level and create bipartisan political space for our representatives to act, so that the problems of today do not become the problems of tomorrow.
The millennial generation and America’s young will bear the brunt of inaction, even though currently millennials have the least say at the policymaking table. It’s time for that to change — Congress must act now on these crucial issues.
Andrew Kaplan, a rising senior at Brown University and New York City native, is co-founder and Chief Action Officer of Common Sense Action, a bipartisan millennial group focused on advancing generational fairness, investing in millennial economic mobility and repairing politics. CSA has 24 chapters across 15 U.S. states. Maddie Gootman, a rising senior at Vanderbilt University and South Carolina native, is the president of the Vanderbilt University chapter of CSA.