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Commentary: 'Ambitious Goal' To Address Unemployment In D.C.

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Martha Ross, Fellow at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program

The District of Columbia continues to struggle with unemployment rates above the national average despite more jobs than residents. That has D.C. leaders trying to figure out how to better prepare Washingtonians to compete in the job market. Commentator Martha Ross, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program, says the city must work to give students alternative.

Unemployment and economic opportunity in the District are both in the news a lot these days.

For many young people, there is too much of the former and not enough of the latter. Nearly 9,000 low-income District young people without bachelor's degrees are not in school and not working. That's one in 10. Unemployment rates among teens and young adults have reached Depression-era levels. High-school graduation rates are below 50 percent.

Part of the problem is we don't have clear educational or career pathways to adulthood for our young people. We need to create those pathways or else consign many youth to be low-skilled, low-income, and unemployed DC residents of the future.

The city should commit to an ambitious goal: by 2022, 90 percent of D.C.’s young people will earn a post-secondary credential and obtain full-time work by the age of 24. Such a shared goal would have a cascading effect, and require partners in the public, private and social sectors to re-think and re-orient their standard operating procedures.

Starting with the big picture, let’s acknowledge that there’s dignity in all kinds of learning and working, and get serious about building multiple pathways to high school completion and post-secondary education, instead of focusing only on the college-prep track leading to a four-year degree.

There are many examples of successful practices, in the District and around the country, that help students finish high school, succeed in post-secondary education and link them to good jobs. These include high school career and technical education, paid internships at private sector workplaces, service corps programs, literacy and GED programs linked to job training or post-secondary education, apprenticeships, and partnerships between community colleges and employers.

Building and expanding such programs will be a complex, multi-year project, but it's not out of our reach. In fact, city leaders have already taken a number of steps. They created a community college, revitalized the Workforce Investment Council, and are developing an intermediary to better match residents with job openings. These steps are necessary but not sufficient. We must do more. Through action or inaction, we will leave a legacy for our daughters and sons - it’s up to us whether it is one of hope or despair.

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