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August 7, 2023 Opinion & Commentary

CT should invest $500M in summer/‘Opportunity Youth’ programs to boost talent pipeline

Lisa Tepper Bates

Connecticut is facing a substantial gap in its state labor force: our employers urgently need more residents prepared for the workforce.

Alex Johnson

Presently, thousands of young people are not actively participating, including those who are finishing high school and not planning for college, or disconnected from education and employment entirely — years after high school completion.

Helping connect these young people with the workforce helps our economy and helps them.

Last year, the high-impact Summer Youth Employment and Learning Program served 3,016 youth across the state — a decline of 54% from the 2010 service level. This year, an increase in the minimum wage coupled with inflation meant that summer youth employment programs are even more expensive to implement, stretching thin the $5.8 million in funding available across the state for this important program.

Valiant efforts to expand the Connecticut youth employment program to $10 million, resulting in thousands of additional youth signing up for anticipated summer employment, failed to materialize in the final days of state budget negotiations, dashing the hopes of youths and employers.

We thank Mayor Luke Bronin for his recent investment of $300,000 for Hartford youth, yet more commitment and support is needed statewide.

The unmet demand for youth employment connection comes at a particularly challenging time in our state. Chris DiPentima, head of the Connecticut Business & Industry Association (CBIA), noted in June that the state’s labor force is at its lowest level since September 2021 — down 16,700 in 2023 alone.

A robust investment in our youth is critical to meeting our business and industry needs, growing our future talent pipeline, keeping workers in the state and growing the state economy.

As Gov. Ned Lamont stated, “With more than 100,000 jobs currently available in Connecticut, it’s the right time to make this investment in our future workforce and for the state’s business community.”

We agree.

In addition to the number of in-school youth facing scarcity in public summer employment opportunities, there are an estimated 40,000 Connecticut young adults who are both out-of-school and out-of-work. These young people — ages 16 to 24 — called “Opportunity Youth,” are severely off-track or disconnected from school or employment and need to be reconnected.

Many of these youth come from low-income communities and communities of color, and already face lasting negative impacts from the pandemic, violence and disruption in their daily lives. These young people particularly require structured work-based learning and training programs and supports to become gainfully employed, or otherwise face long-term and permanent unemployment.

Faced with the critical need to strengthen Connecticut’s future talent pipeline, the Campaign for Working Connecticut (CWCT), has issued a report: “Connecticut’s Pathways to the Future,” with a call to action urging state leaders to immediately launch a $25-million statewide investment this year, and $500-million over a 10-year initiative, to provide comprehensive support for quality career pathways engagement for those estimated 40,000 Opportunity Youth.

Ernst & Young’s 2016 report, “Untapped Potential: Engaging all Connecticut Youth,” argued that by providing comprehensive support for quality career pathways, Connecticut could reduce the number of disengaged and disconnected youth by half, and increase the number of workers actively engaged in our state economy, helping to fill the labor gap.

The report noted this effort would result in an estimated additional $3 billion in gross state product for Connecticut over the long term.

Our state continues to face a labor crisis. Our untapped young talent needs attention. It’s time to make a robust investment in programs that support building a future talent pipeline in Connecticut.

Lisa Tepper Bates is the president and CEO of United Way of Connecticut. Alex Johnson is the president and CEO of Capital Workforce Partners.

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