NOTE: This is the first interview in our #FixYoungAmerica special week at Daily BR!NK. #FixYoungAmerica is a national campaign whose mission is to overcome the epidemics of youth unemployment and underemployment. We’ve interviewed five participating leaders from various industries, each having succeeded in their own ways and all currently working to bring about the best practices and tangible solutions to restore the American Dream.
INTERVIEW by GARY GOLDMAN | BR!NK PHOTOGRAPHY by ZACK DeZON
The prospects are grim for members of GenY. In this election year, partisan politics often surpass general interest. Youth employment is at a 60-year low. Students are drowning in loans. When he founded the Young Entrepreneur Council, Scott Gerber set out on the remarkable mission to equip young business leaders with the tools, network, and knowledge to bolster the development of their ventures. Fast-forward to 2012: after witnessing first-hand how entrepreneurs were able to directly tackle issues relating to unemployment and underemployment (and keeping an eye on the overall harsh economic realities this country was facing), the serial entrepreneur/columnist/TV host/angel investor created the first national campaign to #FixYoungAmerica. Along with dozens of organizations, he has been spearheading a movement to bring the issue of youth unemployment back to the table, and subsequently witnessing real change from elected officials.
To start, I’d like for you to give us some numbers and raw data in regards to youth unemployment and student loan debt.
For the 18-24 demographic, roughly 54% of people are employed. Student loan debt is nearing a trillion dollars. Just last week, we looked at the number and saw that the unemployment rate for twenty-somethings is nearly double that of the national average. If many things don’t change right now, future generations will not only struggle to make it on their own, but will struggle to keep the American Dream alive and the country prospering economically.
You’ve mentioned that your own organization (the Young Entrepreneur Council), as well as others, have already identified a handful of approaches that have successfully fostered business creation by young people all over America. Would you mind briefly naming a few of those practical approaches?
We’ve worked with a number of organizations that are generating change on the local, regional, and national levels. On the hill, the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act, also known as the JOBS Act, will allow young entrepreneurs to have access to a new world of capital to crowd-fund their startups, rather than go through the traditional route. In addition, a number of folks in academia have been very active, such as Len Schlesinger: here’s a man who was never an entrepreneur himself, but led Babson to become America’s number one entrepreneurship school. His blueprint could help other colleges initiate similar types of programs. We have folks in the private sector talking about technology advancement, such as Codecademy‘s Zach Sims, who created sustainable coding classes online to supplement the actual educational system.
I would venture to say that a major problem has to do with the lack of preparation for the “real world” students suffer from. Most college graduates have no idea which field they want to get involved in, and often feel very lost.
It’s interesting: we live in a society where young people go to school and acquire knowledge in certain fields, but most wouldn’t know how to run a business in that field or be self-sufficient with their skills. A person might have a liberal arts degree to become an English teacher, but would not know how to start their own tutoring services. This antiquated system doesn’t apply, and it’s hurting young America.
It’s been two weeks since you kicked off the campaign — how has it been received?
It’s been incredible. Tons of blogs have spoken about the campaign, thousands of tweets have been sent out, thousands of dollars have been crowd-funded to support the effort, and we’ve made the homepage story on Fortune. Organizations from the private sector and from every state are asking how they can get involved. We certainly hit a nerve: some of the best institutions in this country are all seeing a common goal and beginning an important conversation.
Promotional video for #FixYoungAmerica
One risk with this kind of campaign is to compete with other groups doing exactly the same thing.
One hundred percent. I think that collaboration is the key to success, because in the end, there is no one solution. It will take a massive collaboration from academia, the government, etc… I think the diversity of supporters and organizations standing beside us is proof that we aim to get as many perspectives engaged as possible.
How can you ensure that this campaign, which has gained tremendous momentum in the past two weeks, remains front-and-center of the popular discourse and political agenda?
Everybody from Generation Y, their friends, their brothers and sisters, their kids, their parents… We all know someone who is going through unemployment or underemployment. The fact of the matter is that today’s twenty-somethings will be tomorrow’s forty-somethings: those who shape politics and create jobs. Unfortunately, with such rocky grounds, we are looking at a generation that may not be better off than their parents, or even their grandparents. We must change course immediately, and get decision-makers to act.
Once people hear about #FixYoungAmerica, their interest piques, but it’s our job to maintain attention in the longer term.
You’re getting support from some big players. I’m also interested in the reaction of those you’re directly targeting: have you gotten any feedback from them?
Absolutely. These kids are writing saying that they are drowning in student loans and don’t see a way out for their future. The old mantra that says, “work hard, get good grades, get a job” is simply not applicable. This generation is underemployed in such high numbers that a lot of people have given up. I hope this campaign restores some hope in them.
This is election year — do you think that youth employment has been so far adequately addressed by candidates on both sides?
[laughs] Well, it’s our job to make sure that it is! I don’t believe that any candidate has ultimately addressed this issue yet. To be clear, I think there has been some positive action taken. Obama’s Income-Based Repayment Plan (also know as the Student Startup Plan) is a great step, for instance. However, we won’t rest until we can hear from politicians that this is a major priority.
How can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to your success?
The first way to help support our campaign is to go to our IndieGoGo page. Every dollar will help continue our outreach. Go to our website, play around with our “Pass The Baby” tool, engage in conversation about entrepreneurship, and help us to hold your leaders accountable. That is the only way these issues will see the light of day: by banding together on this issue and getting over the partisanship, rhetoric, and same-old philosophies.