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Building the Next Generation of Talent in Montgomery County

“The work of upskilling our workforce and educating people is more important for everyone … and it says a lot about what kind of county we’re going to have.” – Marc Elrich, Montgomery County Executive

Fatim, Adilio, Allyson, Marc

L-R: UA alumni Fatim Bagayoko and Adilio Alfaro, Microsoft’s Allyson Knox, and Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich

This month, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich hosted a breakfast discussion about the future of work and the role that youth employment organizations like Urban Alliance (UA) play in building the county’s next generation of talent. Leaders from across the county gathered at the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce in Rockville, MD to hear from Elrich and UA leaders, alumni, and supporters about the growing need for targeted youth workforce development in the county.

Nationwide, there are hidden pockets of need on the outskirts of metropolitan areas. In Montgomery County, MD outside Washington, DC, over 9,000 young people are disconnected, meaning they are neither in school nor working. Youth disconnection is also disproportionately higher among young people of color, and can have negative long-term effects on lifetime earnings, the ability to become self-sufficient in adulthood, physical and mental health, and family relationships. Despite rising graduation and decreasing dropout rates, there is still a significant achievement gap for African American youth in the county as compared to their white and Asian counterparts.

“As our economy grows, we need to make sure that we don’t leave these young people out. They need to be able to find a place and they need to feel, not just for themselves but for their own children, that they can pass on a sense of possibility,” Elrich said. “This is about generational change.”

That sense of communal responsibility for the next generation is what brought UA to Montgomery County in 2017 after a 2015 Greater Washington Community Foundation report illustrated the need for interventions specifically targeted at young people most at risk of disconnection. The report specifically recommended UA, whose High School Internship Program provides paid internships, professional soft skills training, and mentoring to students still in high school with the potential to attend college but who are at risk of dropping out and lack a post-high school plan.

UA’s partners in Montgomery County have been “a true model of cross-sector collaboration,” said Eshauna Smith, UA CEO. “We’ve had the help of the private sector, government, and education” to provide nearly 100 local students with meaningful early work experience and critical soft skills training so far.

During this month’s breakfast, speakers echoed the fact that workforce development is not just a nice thing to do for youth; it’s also solving a vital problem for businesses looking to plug the skills gap.

“Our Chamber’s number one concern, and the thing that keeps our members up at night, is access to talent,” said Gigi Godwin, President and CEO of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce. “It’s all the difference in being competitive not only for their business and in their industry, but regionally, nationally, globally.”

Added Allyson Knox, Senior Director of Education Policy and Programs at Microsoft: “When we hear the statistics about the opportunity gap and the skills gap, the gaps and the divide just seem so wide … ‘How do we even get started on this?’ We believe in [UA’s] mission, because they are getting started. They’re right on the ground, they’re with the youth, they’re creating these relationships, they’re making this difference.”

With more than 7 million open jobs – but 4.5 million young people lacking the skills and experience needed to connect to work or education, even when 75 percent have a high school diploma – the skills gap is an ongoing issue for US employers. 80% of employers report that they’re struggling to find better soft skills among job candidates and it’s limiting productivity, while the cost of long-term job vacancies is an average of $800,000 per year – per company. And with soft-skills-intensive jobs projected to grow at 2.5 times the rate of jobs in other occupations, this gap will only continue to widen.

“These kinds of skills are not traditionally taught in our high school curriculum,” said Fatim Bagayoko, an alumna of Urban Alliance’s inaugural class of interns in Montgomery County. “Urban Alliance helps fill that void.”

Fatim and another Urban Alliance alumnus, Adilio Alfaro, DC Class of 2014, grounded the conversation in their own experience with the program. Their words resonated long after the breakfast ended, because at the end of the day, creating a strong future economy in a community is about empowering the next generation to succeed – one student at a time.

“Urban Alliance is about promoting growth and giving hope. One thing that I learned from Urban Alliance is that you don’t know what’s behind the door until you open it and I’m so glad I opened Urban Alliance’s door. The experience and knowledge that urban Alliance gave me put me on the right track for success,” said Fatim, now a sophomore at the University of Maryland College Park whose experience interning at Holy Cross Hospital through Urban Alliance helped solidify her goal to become a hospital administrator. “I do not believe I would be the same individual without Urban Alliance and all they gave me.”

Added Adilio: “There’s a lot of potential for high school students. A lot of times it’s difficult for students to look for places where they can thrive and tap into an environment that isn’t typically exposed to them. Especially coming from a first-generation immigrant family, I had a great hunger to be successful, but had no idea where to start. UA creates that opening for many students to not only dream big but to capitalize on those decisions.”

Adilio, who interned at the World Bank through UA while in high school, is now a graduate of the University of Maryland – Eastern Shore, and his UA alumni internship with The Aspen Institute has turned into a full-time job as Program Coordinator for the Institute’s Weave: The Social Fabric Project. “My entire life has changed,” he said. “Urban Alliance gave me a platform to speak my dreams and ambitions into reality, and now I hope to use my platform to give a voice to those who share the same passion.”

The message of the day was clear – investing in youth like Fatim and Adilio is investing in a stronger future for the entire community. Urban Alliance’s impact on more young people is only limited by the number of internships they can provide in the county.

Fatim closed out her remarks with a call to action for Montgomery County: “I will leave you all with this: We must continue to invest in our youth because they are our future. We must continue to give them hope, support and all the resources they need in order to set them up for success. Opportunities don’t happen. We have to create them.”

Urban Alliance is excited to continue working to create more opportunities for youth with the support of the Montgomery County community.

To find out more about Urban Alliance’s work in Montgomery County, contact Julie Farkas at jfarkas@theurbanalliance.org.