In the United States today, many companies are in a “talent war,” struggling to find skilled workers to fill entry- to advance-level positions. At the same time 5.8 million young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are not in school and not working—a population the size of Maryland or Wisconsin (and larger than 30 other states). This demographic is often referred to as “opportunity youth,” and the disconnect between employers and this uncultivated talent is widening the talent divide.

In an effort to tangibly address this economic and social challenge, the Rockefeller Foundation, Starbucks, and LeadersUp, a youth development nonprofit that Starbucks helped launch, co-convened business, government, nonprofit, and academic leaders along with activists and community members in an “innovation lab” facilitated by the University of Waterloo and MaRs Solution Lab. The lab took place as a series of three convenings geared to mix the molecules of thought from each sector into useful experiments for solving the problem. Our primary goal was to develop a common strategy and interventions that would create opportunities for disadvantaged youth to meaningfully engage in the economy. In the process we developed prototypes and new capabilities to push beyond strategy.

Mixing Molecules

As executive director of LeadersUp, which focuses on bridging the divide between untapped youth talent and business needs, I was encouraged by the philanthropic world’s desire to tackle the youth unemployment challenge. Yet our goal to spark out-of-the-box, jointly developed interventions, from a group that never before had collaborated, gave me a healthy dose of skepticism.

After the first day my doubts turned to optimism; the value of interactions was evident from the energy in the room and the suggestions on whiteboards. By pairing representatives from different sectors to collaborate on developing prototypes for solutions, enlightening conversations transpired. For example, youth advocates explained how access to transportation segregated opportunities, while employers explained the business factors that determine their hiring decisions.

Useful Experiments

By design, the lab pushed us all to develop a common understanding of job creation systems and their limits. The format promoted free-range thinking around prototypes built from the outset for scale. For example, one prototype mocked up a campaign to influence existing diversity initiatives of major companies across the nation so that they included qualified opportunity youth as viable candidates for entry-level positions. The solution came with inherent ability to scale; it leveraged a human resource infrastructure that currently exists across various industries, and provided easy ways for businesses to get involved by simply expanding their definition of diversity to include disconnected youth.

We came away from the lab having identified principles essential for our interventions to succeed. One was to work with the supply chains of large US companies. LeadersUp is working to achieve this with Starbucks suppliers that want to create a talent pipeline, and that understand the mutual benefit of hiring skilled youth both for their companies and for the communities in which they operate. Over the next 3-5 months, we will review each intervention more deeply in hopes of rolling out prototypes in demographies. Some are already underway: In Ohio, for example, supplier SK Food Group is working with the Central Ohio Workforce Investment Corporation to identify and train enough skilled youth to supply 10-15 percent of the workforce by the end of 2015.

New Capabilities

In addition, we forged three valuable capabilities to foster ongoing change.

  1. Connections and partnerships. Because we knew we wanted a rich discussion on every aspect of the youth unemployment debate, we brought together 39 leaders, representing 10 employers, six youth organizations, four nonprofits, three government agencies, and five foundations to participate in the lab. LeadersUp acquired a valuable network of partners to achieve our mission, including a new board member.
  2. Approaches to problem solving. We created a map of an opportunity youth’s journey to employment that highlighted the challenges employers and youth face at each stage. The process of agreeing and mapping these core milestones to gainful employment helped to challenge preconceived notions and prejudices in the room, as we all examined the potholes on the path. The insights we gained fed into and helped refine LeadersUp’s strategy, enabling our organization to better understand our role as an intermediary that connects business insights to workforce training partners.
  3. Model and tools for social innovation. Our MaRS facilitators exposed participants to new concepts and tools that they could use beyond the lab experience, such as iterative idea generation and rapid prototyping to test the desirability, feasibility, and impact of our ideas. Our team and other participants continue to reference the models and tools shared by the facilitation team. These tools were so influential that they inspired our board of directors to reexamine our strategy for achieving LeadersUp’s mission. We came to understand more clearly that true progress is not just about how many youth are connected to employment pathways, but also about building the business case for shifting hiring practices, recognizing opportunity youth as a viable source of talent.

The innovation lab is an emerging concept that draws on an age-old one: movement building—the simple act of bringing mission-minded people together to exchange ideas, build a network, and fire it up to effect change. The process reminded me that solutions to bridge the talent divide and a plethora of complex, global challenges call for deep interconnectivity. The greatest social innovation occurs when nonprofits, businesses, and governments seek perspective from all sides of an issue, and then define the roles they can play and experiments they can undertake together.

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