How Serving Coffee and Rolling Burritos Might Reconnect 100,000 Young People

Starbucks leads big companies in engaging and employing so-called "disconnected youth."

A Starbucks Coffee barrista readies a beverage for a customer in New York City (National Journal)

A mix of anxiety and excitement overcame Cyan Merritt as she waited one morning last week for the Chicago Opportunity Fair & Forum to begin. She'd come to McCormick Place, "the largest convention center in North America," intending to soak up as much as she could.

Some 4,000 mostly Black young men and women, 16 to 24 years old filled the place. As she spoke with the others, she learned that some were in school, liker her. Some wanted part-time work. Some wanted full-time work. Some had recently lost their jobs; others had been out of work and searching for a long, long time.

Many of the young people present fit into a term called "disconnected youth," or "opportunity youth" (a glass half-full/half-empty difference). Typically, it refers to young men and women who are out of school and out of work. Even as national unemployment has inched closer to acceptable levels, some 5.6 million young people are still out of work and school.

In cities like Phoenix, that translates to nearly one of every five young people. And throughout the country, those young people are 22 percent Black.

(Read about Tai'Lon Jackson, a resilient young man who went from inner city D.C. to George Washington University.)

Without work, and without school, the White House reported that these disconnected youth cost taxpayers $93 billion in missed taxes and spent social costs. Over a lifetime, that can amount to $4.7 trillion. In their own lives, that can mean they're more likely to become incarcerated or unemployed.

The jobs fair was part of program called the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative. It's an ambitious plan to hire that many disconnected youth in three years.

Candidates walked between booths for companies like Chipotle Mexican Grill, FedEx, CVS Health, Walmart, and Starbucks. Interviews happened one-on-one at folding tables.

The 100,000 Opportunities Initiative was started by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who has recently experimented with a lot of programs that would create jobs for young people—particularly young people of color—and help pay for their college.

"The rules of engagement for philanthropy are changing," Schultz said in a statement before the event. "It's not just about writing a check; rather, our approach is focused on creating a coalition of like minds with local knowledge, expertise on-the-ground, and the ability to scale the social impact of an initiative like this to create pathways of opportunity for the literally millions of young people."

(Read about another group reaching young people, the Posse Foundation.)

But can learning to roll a Chipotle burrito or mixing a grande coffee really make much of a difference?

"One of the best things about this opportunity is it allows underserved youth to understand what it means to live off those jobs and to want more and strive for more," says Nichole Pinkard, a professor at DePaul University and founder of the Digital Youth Network, an organization working with 100,000 Opportunities.

For the past couple of years, Pinkard has helped develop a program where youth can earn special badges online. (Merritt had earned many of these badges.) Students earn badges by completing certain tasks—be it in soft skills like mock interviewing and how to dress for work, or more career-focused skills like editing videos and coding. Some of the earned badges can even count toward Advanced Placement credits for college.

The program works with schools across Chicago (and it is being tested in other cities, too) and students complete the tasks online. The organization even outfitted a van with laptops to visit those neighborhoods with poor Internet access. The hope is that these badges will give students like those who participated in the jobs fair something to put on a résumé. Pinkard says: "It's the beginning of an opportunity for youth. It's not the end point."

Pinkard's work is itself part of a 100-group umbrella organization called Chicago City of Learning. And the Cities of Learning program extends across the country, to places like Dallas, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C.

Without work, and without school, the White House reported that these disconnected youth cost taxpayers $93 billion in missed taxes and spent social costs.

This is how the 100,000 Opportunities program intends to reach as many people.

The program has said it will hold more jobs fairs around the country. And Starbucks has promised to build stores and training centers in cities with the most need, like Phoenix, Milwaukee, and Ferguson. As momentum builds, the program expects support will grow.

Schultz said his company alone will hire 10,000 young people.

Merritt sat through six different seminars. One focused on time prioritization, another on applying to jobs online, and another on choosing colleges.

She wandered the convention hall but was hesitant to speak with employers. She listened to other young people talk about how they felt they'd been passed over for work because they grew up in South Side Chicago, used slang, didn't own interview clothes, or had no work history.

"I learned that you need to make sure you have an open network," she said of the experience. "No person is their own island."

At the end of the day, the companies that attended offered jobs to 400 young men and women. Merritt, who refrained from any job interviews, stood in front of a booth, where she traded numbers with a college professor.