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Groups coalesce around the rallying cry: More jobs for young people

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 26, 2009 - How do you keep engaged the estimated 23 million people under 30 who voted in last year’s presidential election? That’s been the question going back as early as primary season, when it became evident that the youth turnout would be substantial.

Several organizations that focus on young people are hoping to continue the momentum by building a coalition around the issue of jobs. Defining the problem is the easy part.

As leaders of the initiative, called 80 Million Strong for Young American Jobs, explain: “With tens of thousands of dollars in debt from student loans and credit cards, young people need jobs, yet in times like these the newly graduated are forced to compete with more experienced workers for even the most entry-level positions.” Thus, many graduates are unemployed or have low-paying jobs without benefits.

Coming up with the solution is more complicated. The idea, explains initiative founding co-chair Matthew Segal, is to build a large base of young supporters willing to push for jobs-related legislation.

“When the talk in Washington focused on the economy and the stimulus package, young people didn’t have a seat at the table,” Segal says. “We need to be involved in that dialogue.” 

The legislation would address several issues and would likely be presented as multiple bills rather than one comprehensive package, according to Segal. He outlined the areas of interest:

• Encouraging entrepreneurship by creating tax incentives for young people who want to get into business or need funding for existing projects, as well as by freeing the flow of credit and lowering the interest rate on loans.

• Extending debt deferral so that graduates have a longer grace period before they need to begin repaying their loans.

• Providing federal grant money for public service careers. Because the salaries for programs like AmeriCorps are minimal, low-income applicants often decide they can’t afford to take such jobs. The idea is to give stipends to students in financial need to take with them to internships or other public service opportunities.

• Creating new positions in what Segal calls “mission-critical fields” such as health care, nursing, cyber security and green jobs that are less affected by the recession. The group also wants to see more vocational education.   

The initiative already has an impressive list of backers, including the United States Student Association, Young People For and Rock the Vote. Segal is executive director of the group Student Association for Voter Empowerment. The other co-chairs represent the Roosevelt Institution, a network of student think tanks, and Mobilize.org, an organization that encourages civic engagement among young people.

Segal is hoping to get upward of 100 people -– ranging from college students to recent grads to high school dropouts -- to attend a summit on July 14 in Washington. Participants will discuss the legislation and speak broadly about  jobs for young people. Applications to attend the event are still being accepted. The 80 million figure in the summit's name refers to the number of people in the so-called Millennial generation, those born roughly between 1980 and 2000. Anyone between the ages of 18 and 34 is eligible to attend. Segal says the focus is on people between 16 and 24 who are most likely first looking for jobs.

The plan is to have summit participants testify before Congress about their financial hardships and their ideas on how to improve job prospects for young people. Others are welcome to share their stories and ideas on the 80 Million Strong website, Segal says.

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