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When Jessicalind Ah Kit, a jobless 23-year-old, stumbled upon the Web site for 80 Million Strong, she got a little teary eyed.
"I kind of cried because (before I found the site), I felt that there wasn't a voice for my generation. I kind of felt like I slipped through the cracks," said Ah Kit, a 2008 Pennsylvania State University graduate and one of 80 million young people comprising the Millennial Generation, many of whom can't find work in the shaky U.S. economy.
80 Million Strong for Young American Jobs is comprised of a coalition of 32 youth-run organizations across the country. Their joint venture is to "convene stakeholders who propose legislation that creates new jobs for the new economy," according to the Web site. Perhaps the kicker for Ah Kit was the part about helping people like her -- the 17.8 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds in America who are jobless, according to 80 Million Strong. That's almost double the national jobless rate of 9.4 percent.
In 2008, Ah Kit graduated from Penn State with two Bachelor of Science degrees, a management information systems degree from the university's Smeal College of Business, and a minor in Japanese. But much to her befuddlement, she's still unemployed.
"I had 15 interviews in the fall," said Ah Kit, who has completed two internships and is seeking work in the business field. One job prospect looked especially promising. "I was flown out to be interviewed for a final time. I was put up in a great hotel, had a car rented out to me." But after the interview, Ah Kit wasn't offered a job because the company had just implemented a worldwide hiring freeze. Many of her opportunities ended because of hiring freezes, she said.
Although 87 percent of all Millennials hold a high school diploma and 30 percent have bachelor's or more advanced degrees, the number of jobless Millennials last year was still 8 percent higher than the national average, according to a 2008 Demos report. And like Ah Kit, they feel Congress isn't acting fast enough to remedy the problem.
On July 14 and 15, Ah Kit joined 100 of her peers at a summit hosted by the 80 Million Strong coalition at the U.S. Capitol Visitor's Center in Washington, D.C.
According to Matthew Segal, founder and national co-chair of 80 Million Strong, it's crucial that America's youth make a call to action. They represent 15 percent of the available labor force in America yet still face a soaring unemployment rate.
"We decided that we needed to leverage the best youth groups in the country to all come together and both review the overarching problem, and then propose solutions," said Segal, who, with the help of other organization youth leaders, formed a steering committee that includes representatives of Mobilize.org, a grassroots, all-partisan network promoting civic and political engagement, The Student Association for Voter Empowerment (SAVE), a non-profit encouraging electoral participation, and The Roosevelt Institute, a network of campus-based student think tanks.
The rest of the coalition is made up of 29 organizations like the National Network for Youth, which serves runaway, homeless and disconnected youth; Vote Latino, a nonprofit aiming to increase American Latino youth civic participation; and Young People For, which has a yearlong fellowship program for college students.
The point of the summit was to discuss common issues, brainstorm solutions, and fine-tune a legislative agenda to take directly to lawmakers. According to many in attendance, if they can draft such an agenda as normal Joe Schmos, why can't Congress?
On July 14, the group heard from a variety of speakers, including Jared Bernstein, chief economic policy adviser to Vice President Joe Biden; Justin Rockefeller, founder of Generation Engage, a nonpartisan youth civic-engagement initiative; and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who is well-regarded by Millennials for his Senate leadership in renewable energy and for helping to craft the Renewable Fuels Consumer Protection and Energy Efficiency Act of 2007.
Salazar took questions on a range of issues, including his support for a public service academy, which was described by a participant as a civilian equivalent to a military academy, and his department's response to devastation caused by tree-killing bark beetles in Colorado forests. He applauded youth involvement and passion, saying, "The future of our world is dependent on young people being connected up to the landscapes of America." Meanwhile, he's working with top Obama administration officials on summoning young people to work in the public service world. "We need to make government service cool again," he said.
Breakout sessions addressed green jobs, internships, health care, and a range of other issues. Then, using interactive voting technology, participants voted on the policy areas of highest importance while slowly tweaking their collective proposal.
The coalition then lobbied on Capitol Hill.
The following are a few suggestions outlined in its final proposal:
-- Develop a Youth Innovation Fund "to grant money to young social entrepreneurs."
-- Make AmeriCorps (which has seen a rise in popularity), a more viable option by raising wages, which are currently below the poverty level.
-- Create a youth diplomatic service program using funds from the Public Service Act to give people, especially community college students, opportunities in foreign service.
-- Allow young adults to be covered under their parents' health insurance until age 26 regardless of student status and/or expand Medicaid to include certain childless young adults.
-- Help alleviate student debt by enacting income-based repayment, including private loans, and unifying the existing three strands of financial aid: Pell Grants, Loans and Work Study.
A call to action from the college corner couldn't be more timely. The Obama administration is stirring up discussion about how to help debt-ridden graduates and proposing major funding for the community college system. "We believe it's time to reform our community colleges so that they provide Americans of all ages a chance to learn the skills and knowledge necessary to compete for the jobs of the future," Obama wrote in a Washington Post column this week.
But many young people are finding they already have the know-how, just no way to prove it.
"I tried to do everything that people tried to tell me to do, like studying abroad, getting a language, everything," said Ah Kit. "People in America don't need better resumes. They don't need better tips. They need jobs."
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