The following is a commentary by Donna Klein, president and founder of Corporate Voices for Working Families. It examines the key relationship between helping at-risk young people succeed and our nation’s economic prosperity — and offers some recommendations for the incoming Obama administration.

Suppose President Obama could do only one thing to strengthen our economy and guarantee that millions of young people in the United States will have the opportunity to realize the American dream.

What should he do in the first days and months after taking office in January?

Here’s a suggestion that would lead to big results. President Obama should shine the national spotlight on the increasingly serious problem involving young people who either drop out of high school or who get a diploma but not the education and skills necessary to succeed. Those young people forfeit their future in our knowledge-based global economy.

The facts here aren’t new, but they provide a compelling call to action for leaders in government, business and education. Consider the following: 

·      Close to one in three young people drop out of high school every year. More than 1.2 million.

·      America’s Promise Alliance, established by Gen. Colin Powell, estimates that each year dropouts represent $320 billion in lost lifetime earnings potential.  That translates into diminished consumer spending – and lower tax revenue.

·      There is a difference of about $300,000 between what a dropout and a high school graduate earns during a working lifetime, according to the National Dropout Prevention Center.

·    That same organization estimates that high school dropouts make up 75 percent of America’s state prison inmates.

·      For those who do graduate, as many as 40 percent are not prepared for the workplace of today or tomorrow, based on research conducted with employers by Corporate Voices for Working Families and other organizations.

·      And while a college degree is not required for successful entry into the workforce, employers in the same study, Are They Really Ready To Work?, project that they will hire more new employees with a college degree and fewer with only a high school diploma.

Our failure to help students succeed in school and on the job is a national crisis touching the lives of more than 4.3 million disconnected young people.  It stretches and often breaks the social services that our community organizations and local governments can provide and undercuts our economy and global competitiveness.

President Obama can help solve this national crisis by exhibiting the leadership and vision that he demonstrated throughout the campaign. We can’t afford to lose a generation of young people who must take their place in our society as employees, consumers and voters.

To meet this challenge, we must come together as a nation to create a comprehensive, coordinated and integrated system of learning and development that provides a range of opportunities for all young people to succeed in school and during their working lives.

In part, this means creating alternative pathways to success for disconnected and at-risk young people. We know what it takes to help these young people get on a career path:  pre-employment training on key workforce skills, a work-based apprenticeship, an engaged adult mentor, and social support services. Successful alternative pathways programs pair outcomes focused non-profits with engaged business partners to provide young people with the right combination of training, support and opportunities.

As President Obama focuses on two of his top priorities, creating new “green” jobs and rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure, we urge him to make alternative career paths for disconnected youth a priority within these initiatives. These jobs are ideal for helping youth get on a path to success, and in doing so, President Obama will help transform lives and the economy.

President Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it.” He supported a set of legislative strategies to help transition former welfare recipients to work, and simultaneously reached out to business to form the Welfare to Work Partnership under the leadership of Eli Segal. The business community took up the challenge and hired more than a million former welfare recipients during the Clinton years.

Does the Congress have a role? Yes. Members of Congress should enact as quickly as possible an Alternative Career Pathway bill that provides opportunity for disconnected young people and helps businesses gain the skilled, talented employees necessary to compete in today’s global economy.

In addition, the incoming Obama administration and Congress should use the tax code to broaden opportunities for at-risk youth by providing incentives for businesses to create work opportunities and to establish mentoring programs, internships and apprenticeships.

But none of this will happen without the leadership and commitment of the new president.

President Obama, if you can do only one thing during the first months of your administration, help our young people succeed and at the same time strengthen our economy.  Please commit to creating alternative career pathways for disconnected youth as part of your economic stimulus agenda.