Exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States is facing a growing crisis of economically distressed youth and adults. Born at the intersection of racial inequities, class stratification, and residential segregation, which together severely limits the social networks of many and the opportunities that they can access, millions of 16-65-year-olds are forced to search for economic opportunity alone, left without a map and the connections to guide them to the opportunities that have been regulated to the well-connected few.
Many of these individuals have job skills and a desire to work, but they lack social capital and the opportunities it brings. Because of their lack of connections, we call them “OPPORTUNITY SEEKERS.”
In comparison to gainfully employed populations, opportunity seekers face numerous barriers to economic mobility and success, with many growing up in less than ideal economic, social, and familial situations. From poverty to inadequate educational training to limited access to power relations, too many opportunity seekers lack the skills, connections, and resources to gain footage in the 21st-century economy, build careers, and achieve lifelong success.
In looking at opportunity seekers through an equity lens, we see that Black opportunity seekers are disproportionately unemployed and underemployed compared to their white peers. According to Measure What Matters, the rate of disconnection for African Americans is 8.5 percentage points higher compared to their white peers, which reveals that minority populations face significant challenges that must be addressed if we wish to break the cycle of inequity. With COVID-19 anticipated to reverse recent positive gains in economic mobility, it is imperative that we act quickly, or we risk leaving these millions of opportunity seekers behind.
Despite the best efforts of human capital investments, many opportunity seekers who develop workplace skills through alternative routes such as community college, apprenticeships, and workforce development programming are nevertheless failing to secure gainful employment equal to their investments in credentialing and job training. Research is questioning the impact of programs focused mainly on increasing skills and credentials without helping workers build the necessary social connections that could help put these achievements to work.
Limited Social Capital
Opportunity seekers with poor social connections have lower rates of labor force participation and fewer opportunities to discover their own unique contributions to the professional world. Social capital helps opportunity seekers identify and build momentum by exposing them to specific career pathways, service opportunities, and skill-building opportunities. They also motivate opportunity seekers to invest their time and resources in education, skills training, and the pursuit of a positive lifestyle, which is positively correlated to future economic success. Long-term social capital connections with people in targeted industries can increase opportunity seekers’ investment in skills training and education. It shows opportunity seekers that there are others willing and able to help them put their skills and credentials to work.
Without these real-life social capital connections, many opportunity seekers may ask, “Why bother?” An examination of labor market participation rates reveals this growing discontent. The share of 16-to 24-year-olds saying they did not want a job rose from an average 29.5 percent in 2000 to an average 39.4 percent over the first ten months of 2014. Why are so many opportunity seekers turning away from the world of work and the promise that it brings? We see that opportunity seekers without stable connections to gainfully employed people lose hope for their own economic outlook. The future labor market success of millions of opportunity seekers is largely dependent on the building of social capital and the utilization of these connections to produce measurable and positive labor market outcomes.
At Social Capital Builders, we’ve spent the past 11 years building the expertise and experience to improve the social capital connections of millions of opportunity seekers through our social capital literacy and development solutions. Through such an effort, strategies, policies, and practices can be formulated to better connect individuals with opportunity agents and help them capitalize on the opportunities and benefits that these agents may bring.
Social capital development can serve as a beacon to illuminate the power of connection, community, and compassion to transform opportunity access for low-income populations. It can galvanize Americans of all backgrounds to connect with those who need social capital the most and provide fodder for local equity efforts to address the systemic barriers that impede the healthy development of all people, especially those of color.
Edward DeJesus is the President of DeJesus Solutions LLC, the founders of Social Capital Builders. Learn more about their work at www.socialcapitalbuilders.org