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Building a Stronger Chicago Talent Pipeline

“How do we build a steady and diverse pipeline of talent while also keeping young people on a path to success?”

That was the question Urban Alliance (UA) CEO Eshauna Smith put to a group of Chicago business leaders gathered last week for UA’s “Building a Stronger Chicago Talent Pipeline” event. How does the business community fix the broken pipeline that results in 6.7 million unfilled jobs while there are also 4.6 million young people neither in school nor working? For UA, the answer is to start early – making workforce readiness training and work experience available to underserved before they have a chance to disconnect.

That’s why we recommitted to our mission by launching the Obama Youth Jobs Corps (OYJC) with the Obama Foundation earlier this year to increase economic opportunity for young people on Chicago’s South Side.

As the Obama Foundation’s Michael Strautmanis put it, “We at the Obama Foundation have partnered with Urban Alliance for a number of reasons, but there is one that really rises to the top: we care deeply about providing opportunity for youth in our communities across Chicago and also helping them learn the skills needed for the workforce.”

Along with the Obama Foundation, two of UA’s long-time partners in the city, Hyatt and Bank of America doubled down on their investment in Chicago youth by becoming signature OYJC partners, sponsoring or hosting additional interns over the next four years. For them, investing in Urban Alliance youth is not just philanthropy – it’s good business.

Hyatt CEO Mark Hoplamazian said that UA interns “take the opportunity really seriously, and they are extraordinary employees. They really dedicate their efforts, and they are constantly looking to push themselves, look for those other opportunities and really grow and that is a tremendous benefit to us.”

“I’m a big believer that a fresh set of eyes and a fresh perspective brings fresh learnings and new insights,” Hoplamazian added. “One big opportunity is to welcome young people who come from very different backgrounds than most of the people who they are working with, and they will see things afresh and anew and they’ll have really valuable insights and perspectives to share.”

Bank of America Global Head of Environmental, Social and Governance Andrew Plepler echoed Hoplamazian’s sentiments: “This wasn’t just philanthropy; this transformed our workplace.”

“We talk about diversity and inclusion at Bank of America, but then you see it and how the people at the company think about our company differently,” Plepler continued, “So, yes, it’s transforming the life of a young person, but it’s also transforming our workplace and making people believe that when we talk about our commitment to the community and our commitment to diversity and inclusion, that it’s real.”

Bank of America hosts more than 50 Urban Alliance interns each year across all regions where the company operates, Plepler said, because “it works. It works for us; it works for the young people.”

But even with corporate heavy-hitters in the room, the real star of the show was recent Back of the Yards College Preparatory High School graduate Makiah Watson, who interned at the Obama Foundation through Urban Alliance this year.

“Where I come from, people do not aspire to fulfill their dreams. Instead, they allow them to drift away simply because we aren’t supposed to have a success story,” Makiah said. “At any moment, both metaphorically and realistically, I ran the risk of having my dreams violently taken away from me because of where I come from.”

Makiah found out that she had been accepted to Urban Alliance on her birthday, and was excited and shocked. “There was absolutely no way that I, me, Makiah, at the age of 17, would be able to say I interned at the Obama Foundation,” she said. “Because of Urban Alliance, I suddenly believed that I really could do anything in this world. This internship has been both a joy and a learning experience.”

“I hope my story delivers the message to the business community that investing in young people like myself can help us find valuable resources, develop skills, and gain new ideas and a new outlook on life,” Makiah concluded. Urban Alliance does “not just place you in a job, they invest in you as an individual. They want to make sure you know that they are there to uplift you and help you along the way.”

Makiah’s speech was greeted with a standing ovation.

Before OYJC starts its second year in Chicago, we are looking for new job partners to provide even more young people with transformative work experiences. But don’t just take our word for it – listen to Hyatt’s Hoplamazian, who said of OYJC: “We view it as a gift, as an opportunity for us to go towards and take advantage of, and we are obviously expanding that significantly because we feel like this is a new opportunity for us to really make a bigger impact, but also get a bigger benefit.”

“I would encourage you to give it a shot, to expand, to bring these young people on your teams,” said Strautmanis. “If they’re anything like Makiah, I know they’re not going to let you down.”

To learn more about becoming an OYJC partner, contact our Chicago Executive Director Jenna Ketchum at 312-496-3300 or jketchum@theurbanalliance.org.