How to Fix Young America

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Our government is being strangled by partisan politics. Youth employment is at a 60-year low [PDF]. Student loan debt is approaching $1 trillion (and default rates are rising quickly).

Yet young Americans are far more optimistic about our country’s future than the pundits would have you believe—and they are demonstrating that optimism through entrepreneurship. According to a 2011 youth entrepreneurship survey by the Young Entrepreneur Council and Buzz Marketing Group, 23 percent of young people started a business as a result of being unemployed. Fifteen percent started a business in college. And let's not forget our veterans, who are twice as likely as other Americans to own businesses.

So why are so few pundits and politicians building on that entrepreneurial energy as a solution to joblessness and economic malaise? It’s high time we funneled our collective energy toward rebuilding an entrepreneurial America.

This is not an abstract endeavor. The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) and its partners such as Junior Achievement, Babson College, Codecademy, Venture for America, and College Hunks Hauling Junk, have identified a handful of tried-and-true approaches that are already successfully fostering business creation by young people all over America as part of the #FixYoungAmerica movement. We are also spearheading an IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign to support ongoing events and outreach nationwide, as well as the debut of the official #FixYoungAmerica book.

Below are five broad strategies that we believe need to be adopted to accelerate this vital movement.

1. Integrate Academia and the Real World

In the 2011 YEC/Buzz Marketing Group survey, 88 percent of young people said that entrepreneurship education is vitally important given the new economy—and yet 74 percent of college students had no access to entrepreneurship resources on campus. When resources were available, most students felt they were woefully inadequate.

This is not acceptable—in the 21st century, entrepreneurial thinking isn't just for entrepreneurs. Adaptability, creativity and financial literacy are core skills for American employees and so-called intrapreneurs—innovators within larger organizations—as well. They’re also critical assets to our communities: Junior Achievement and the Aspen Institute found that youth entrepreneurship programs positively impacted dropout rates and community engagement, not to mention the development of risk-taking and opportunity recognition. But most employers today [PDF] think high school and college graduates are seriously deficient in skills like leadership and innovation, and we face a steep shortfall of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates.

If we actually want to change the way Americans work, then parents, K-12 schools, community colleges, four-year colleges and entrepreneurship-focused nonprofits must meet these challenges head-on. Junior Achievement, Babson, Cogswell College, the University of Colorado, the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship (NACCE) and the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), among others, are leading the way.

2. Eliminate Government Barriers

Even our deadlocked Congress has found bi-partisan compromises in entrepreneurship-related legislation, including reforms to the patent process and student loan relief. But gridlock is preventing truly decisive action. From increasing states’ self-employment assistance programs to removing regulations prohibiting startups from openly crowdsourcing capital, we need the U.S. government to do better.

One way we can demand a boldly pro-growth agenda is through the passing of acts and measures such as the Youth Entrepreneurship Act, which would defer or forgive student loan debt for young entrepreneurs using the precedent set by the Income-Based Repayment program. The VET Act of 2011 proposes a program to help returning vets use their GI benefits to start businesses.

An overwhelming 88 percent of young people feel the government does not support them. Holding our representatives accountable and asking them to stop restricting the youth-owned startups of tomorrow is a start.

3. Invest In and Mentor Young Entrepreneurs

Initiatives such as the Startup America Partnership and Dell’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence program are models for the private sector. Business leaders can team up with accelerators, venture capitalists, campus groups, regional leadership and nonprofits to mentor, finance and train the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Or they can help pave the way for the next public software engineering school, as Union Square Ventures VC Fred Wilson did in New York. Franchisors can extend special financing to youth and veterans—after all, direct economic output in the franchise sector is projected to grow [PDF] 5 percent in 2012, and employment, 2.1 percent. By openly encouraging our youth to work in startups, which generate many new jobs—those companies can have a chance to grow, and in turn, help young people to thrive.

It’s also important to start creating common-sense avenues for financial support. Microloan financiers like Kiva are easing global unemployment throughout the developing world—why not here? After all, improving access to capital doesn’t necessarily start with banks—having non-financial support doubles the likelihood [PDF] that a young entrepreneur will be approved for a commercial loan.

4. Teach Technology Inside and Outside the Classroom

The Web has revolutionized the way we do business, creating a far more level playing field for young entrepreneurs—provided they have the skill set to take advantage of it.

One study found that small- to medium-sized businesses with strong Web presences grew twice as fast as those with only a minimal presence (or none at all) and created twice the number of jobs. We need to prepare all young people for this reality through sustainable technology programs that work in tandem with academics. In the classroom, this means teaching hands-on software engineering, not just computing basics—the Bureau of Labor Statistics is projecting an employment increase for software engineers of 32 percent by 2018. Outside the classroom, companies like Codecademy fill the gaps in K-12 and college education by creating peer-to-peer platforms where aspiring coders can learn by doing.

5. Foster Entrepreneurship at the Regional Level

Not all solutions fit all communities. For example, cities facing economic decline might be better off creating resource-rich networks so that young entrepreneurs can cut through the red tape at the local level instead of departing en masse. The Idea Village in New Orleans has sustained more than 1,000 jobs and $83 million in revenue by retaining and supporting the city’s entrepreneurs.

Underserved regions can develop ecosystems in which idea exchange, growth, and financial support are readily available. From Silicon Prairie to New Orleans, entrepreneurs are bridging gaps between local government, investors and backyard entrepreneurs. These hyper-local networks can provide the momentum needed to get new businesses off the ground immediately.

Ways to Participate in #FixYoungAmerica

While these strategies only touch upon on some of the solutions in play right now, there are leaders in every sector—government, education, nonprofit and private—who can add to this list as we approach the 2012 elections. To really shift the national conversation for good, all solutions should be put on the table for decision-makers to see.

You can participate by:

  • Contributing to the Campaign: Your tax-deductible contributions to #FixYoungAmerica through IndieGoGo.com will help put a copy of the book, #FixYoungAmerica in the hands of every politician, thought leader and decision maker in America, and will fuel our efforts to transform innovative ideas into actionable solutions. YEC and #FixYoungAmerica is a 100 percent nonprofit effort, and part of your contribution will be donated to programs for young entrepreneurs.
  • Passing the Baby: Visit our website and click on the Pass the Baby button to share your own idea to reduce youth unemployment and underemployment. Then, share your idea (and our baby mascot) on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter or on your website to show your support.
  • Visiting FixYoungAmerica.com for even more ways to help.

 

Leading America Forward

This is not about making life easier for Millennials—it’s about ensuring that, when they become the 30-, 40- and 50-something leaders of tomorrow, they will have the capacity and ability to lead America forward. From the Arab Spring to the Tea Party, from Occupy Wall Street to the SOPA and PIPA protests, we've seen the power of what like-minded individuals can achieve. You’re invited to join the mission  to do what no government or organization can do alone: #FixYoungAmerica.

This article was written and submitted by Scott Gerber of the Young Entrepreneurship Council. The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily the views of LegalZoom.