*This article was originally published by Forbes on 5/31/22. You can find the original article here.
Latest figures suggest that the US is home to more than four million “disconnected youth” — young people ages 16 to 24 who are neither in education nor employment. These individuals are five times more likely to have a criminal record than their peers.
Serious implications follow. Because for one in three U.S. adults, having a record severely limits economic opportunity. The unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people is 27% — a record high in the country’s history.
And even in alternative scenarios i.e. when these incarcerated individuals do find jobs, they’re significantly more likely to be given low paying roles. The repercussions trickle down into lifetime earnings value. For example, a study found that first-time incarceration reduced lifetime earnings by more than 30%.
Given the severity of these consequences, companies are teaming up to develop hiring programs to provide opportunities to youth at risk for incarceration.
Among these, Ben & Jerry’s today announced its participation in Unlock Potential, a first of its kind employment program for young people who are most vulnerable. According to the creators of the program, this initiative will enable “hiring to advance racial equity, recruit the next generation of corporate leaders, and help disrupt the poverty-to-prison pipeline.”
“Creating meaningful career opportunities for Black and Brown at-risk youth supports skill development and economic mobility in the communities we serve and exist in.” said Allie Reid, Ben & Jerry’s Senior Retail Racial Equity and Inclusion Manager.
Such professional opportunities are of tremendous significance, even more so for young people of color. Because the repercussions of incarceration are disproportionately felt by people of color. Black Americans, for example, are incarcerated at nearly five times the rate of their Caucasian counterparts. In addition, the impact of a criminal record on employment is significantly higher for people of color. The effects add up over time, resulting in lower labor force participation and diminished chance of economic mobility.
These realities make “first-chance hiring” programs critical to deliver meaningful career opportunities to those people who are the most likely to end up in our prisons and jails.
“We must find ways to increase the positive life choices open to these young people. Early employment—in ice cream and beyond—can set them on the right path for a lifetime of success.” said Matthew McCarthy, CEO of Ben & Jerry’s, and Celia Ouellette, CEO of Responsible Business Initiative for Justice.
What’s next? According to a joint statement from the leads, following the design consultation phase expected to wrap up in October, Unlock Potential will launch a 12-month program. Assisted by the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice – cofounders of Unlock Potential – a handful of Ben & Jerry’s franchised Scoop Shops will be matched with prospective hires to provide careers with real opportunity for advancement. Participants will also be connected with local wraparound support services through national non-profit Persevere to help ensure their success.
Increasingly companies are shifting away from traditional ‘philanthropy-based’ models of social responsibility to ‘program-based’ initiatives that push for authentic community engagement. This is an encouraging change, because it creates space for vulnerable groups that have (historically) seldom been able to access the benefits of corporate responsibility programs.
But this is just the beginning. Data on disconnected youth is concerning too. Over 90% of disconnected youth are BIPOC — youth of color represent 28% of the U.S. population, but a disproportionately high 67% of offenders in residential placement. Reports also suggest that Black and Latino youth are up to six times more likely to be disconnected than those of caucasian descent.
There are more questions: how will programs like Unlock Potential not only acquire at-risk talent, but also invest in their growth, retention and acceleration? How will these initiatives integrate vulnerable groups on a track of career mobility and prevent professional stagnation? Will mentoring opportunities be made available? Will a skills-based curriculum be designed to train at-risk youth to build their resume and apply to ambitious positions in the future?
Many questions remain — and with each one, the potential for exponential impact. At its core, really, is the imperative for a continued, resource-intensive, investment-oriented commitment to empower vulnerable groups — not just in a one-time pilot but across long-term horizons.