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Grads of Life Paves a Path to Employment for Non-degree Opportunity Youth

Grads of Life Paves a Path to Employment for Non-degree Opportunity Youth

Zach Brooke

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This May, droves of national nonprofit execs decamped from the country’s coastal cities to descend on the gorgeous hardwood and exposed brick Lacuna Artist Lofts in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. 

Their mission: find for-profit work. Not for themselves, but for the dozens of young men and women who shrugged off the chilly showers of late spring for a chance at the American dream.


Upstairs, the job seekers convened around a breakfast buffet before taking seats in front of television monitors projecting the opaque but inspiring slogan, “The Dream Is Free But The Hustle Is Sold Separately.” As they ate, one man nourished their hunger for accomplishment with a pep talk.

“Everyone in here is necessary for this city to thrive,” says Jeffrey Wallace, president and CEO of LeadersUp, a nonprofit that works to build a pipeline between employers and vulnerable communities in need. “There is something in you that no one else can contribute.”

Downstairs, other leaders at the Career 360 event are prepping to process the attendees after they’ve finished breakfast. One station near the main entrance of the gallery is set up to guide people through mock interviews. Another area, overseen by local nonprofit Skills Scout, will walk candidates through simulated on-the-job tasks. Toward the back, employers with a large presence in Chicago—United Airlines, FedEx, C.H. Robinson—have set up career fair booths to pitch their companies to would-be applicants. 

In the middle of the room is a massive black backdrop that reads “Real 7-Second Résumés.” It’s outfitted with flat-screen TVs and flanked by computer terminals and two-person high-top pub tables. It’s a mysterious offering that is being billed as the main draw at today’s event, and it’s the brainchild of yet another nonprofit at the space today, Grads of Life, and its new agency, 22squared.

Launched in 2014, Grads of Life seeks to convince employers to look for talent outside of the traditional academic pipeline. “There are 6 million young adults across the country that fit the opportunity youth categories, and these are young people 16 to 24 who aren’t in school and aren’t in work and who have not yet obtained a post-secondary credential,” says Elyse Rosenblum, principal at Grads of Life. “The mission of Grads of Life is to create a functioning talent marketplace that connects employers with opportunity youth as a new source of talent.”

The organization may only be three years old, but Rosenblum has promoted this particular cause for years. “The work really built on about five years of work that came before the launch of the campaign where we were working with employers to identify what was working for them in expanding their talent pipeline to include opportunity youth.”

The phrase “opportunity youth” is used repeatedly by Rosenblum and others at the event. It’s a respectful but coded term. In plain English, it refers to those young adults who entered the workforce right out of high school. Rosenblum has been doing this so long she can remember when such people were called disconnected youth. Whereas in the past, these workers would look forward to the promise of a good-paying blue-collar job lifting them into middle-class comfort, profound shifts in the U.S. economy have eroded the lion’s share of these opportunities.  

Rosenblum also knows better than most the challenges of lobbying companies to place opportunity youth. In a previous role, she brought together employers for the Kellogg Foundation to get their perspectives on this group of young people.

“The responses pretty much across the board for all the employers, many of whom were service sector employers, were like, “What? No, we don’t hire those kids,” she says. “Really no interest, no awareness.”

Since then, however, there’s been significant movement around the employment outlook for working-class, or non-degree adults, as well as conversations about the true value of college and whether higher education is for everyone. This, Rosenblum says, is no accident.

“It’s now in the common conversation,” she says. “There’s been a lot of work by us and others to raise this issue.”

Rosenblum scored an early major win for the cause when, shortly after launching the organization (the name Grads of Life was developed by its first agency, Arnold Worldwide), she was able to lean on an old connection to land a pitch meeting with the Ad Council, the nonprofit media company that secures access to creative channels for public service organizations.

“When we heard about the issue of the opportunity gap and about how many jobs were going unfilled because employers weren’t aware of and hiring opportunity youth, we knew we wanted to be a part of the solution,” says Michelle Hillman, Ad Council’s head of campaign development. “We were so happy to find a partner who had a leadership position in the national dialogue around the issue of opportunity youth and who was such a respected voice.”

Ad Council responded by securing donated media in several spaces to advertise the Grads of Life cause. Developed by Arnold Worldwide, the creative included traditional outdoor spots appearing in Times Square and along bus routes and train lines operated by the Chicago Transit Authority showing well-dressed young men and women confronting the tendency of HR professionals to overlook diamond-in-the-rough employees. “To Find A Great Candidate, Give Traditional Hiring Practices the Day Off,” reads one, while another chastises, “In Looking For The Ideal Résumé, You’ve Ignored The Ideal Candidate.”

These static advertisements were also put to use in print media in Sunday editions of The New York Times and The Boston Globe. They were accompanied by TV ads played on the Bloomberg Network and the CNN Airport Network. The campaign also established a strong online presence through a sponsored blog on

“[Forbes] just turned out to be a phenomenal donation to the campaign,” Rosenblum says. “We use that space to showcase important issues around the skills gap, the opportunity divide, talent strategy and we engage thought leaders all across the country to contribute and be guest bloggers on the site. We’ve had tremendous traction.”

The outlets are not the places where the people they serve would congregate, and that’s by design, Rosenblum says. Early on in the partnership with the Ad Council, she pushed to make sure the campaign focused not on reaching out to opportunity youth, but rather on raising awareness and buy-in from prospective employers.

“Initially [the Ad Council] said, ‘Yes we want to do something on the issue of opportunity.’ But the first thought was a campaign focused on the young people to get them to see a world of opportunity out there,” Rosenblum says. “We pushed back and said … if employers aren’t open to opportunity youth, then getting these young people all jazzed up doesn’t really make sense.”

“It was a new thing for the Ad Council,” she adds. “They had not really done a B-to-B campaign before. Most of their campaigns are entirely public-facing. It was a stretch for the Ad Council, [and] it was certainly a stretch for us.”

There are signs it’s worked. Grads of Life’s most recent “Impact Update” from May shows that the Forbes blog has been visited more than 4.7 million times. All told, there has been $76 million in donated media given to the organization since its inception. Rosenblum calls this figure, “wildly successful” beyond her greatest aspirations, which were about $20 million, she says.

All this exposure has helped Grads of Life realize its altruistic mission. According to Grads of Life, general awareness of hiring opportunity youth has increased from 17% in 2014 to 29% in 2017. The number of employers that are planning to fill positions with these workers has grown by 8% in the same period. 

A third-party survey of 600 recruiters and hiring managers found that a quarter had seen the Grads of Life campaign, and nearly 75% believed that hiring opportunity youth is “good for business.” 

Grads of Life also had significant success convincing specific employers to come aboard.

“We work with employers from all different sectors,” Rosenblum says. “We have a partnership right now with the National Network for Business and Industry, which sits at the Business Roundtable, and we’re working with industry associations and their employers. We’re working closely with the American Hospitality and Lodging Association and a number of big companies, such as Hilton Intercontinental Hotel. We’re just about to start working with Marriott.”

It’s important to note that through all this, Grads of Life does not actually work directly with opportunity youth. Rather, it is focused entirely on convincing businesses to recognize these workers and tweak their hiring practices so more of them can find worthwhile career opportunities. It’s important that Grads of Life collaborate with other nonprofits working directly with this group and attend events like Career 360 in Chicago, especially because its next campaign, Real 7-Second Résumés, leans heavily on nonprofits.

“On average, hiring managers are only looking at résumés for seven seconds, which is kind of nuts when you think about it,” says Kevin Botfeld, executive creative director of 22squared. “They have a stack of paper on their desk, and they’re flipping through it. Opportunity youth don’t necessarily have the résumés that everybody else does. They have different circumstances,” he says. The seven-second résumés exercise aims to create an opportunity to tell their stories and highlight their life skills—things like work ethic, tenacity, dedication—that don’t show up on a traditional CV. At Career 360, job seekers are given the opportunity to create a seven-second résumé. First, they fill out their information at one of the computer terminals. Then, they stand in line to work with one of a handful of job experts who will quiz them on their work history and unique job experiences, looking for marketable facets to make candidates stand out during the very brief video clips.

“We’ve had some amazingly interesting stories,” Botfeld says. “Grads that were going to the program who were homeless. Grads who were working two to three jobs. Grads that had to care for their younger siblings while they were trying to go through the program. We’re trying to draw out those stories and those experiences because those are ones employers are looking for.”

After they finish their scripts, grads wait to be called into a room where a two-person film crew will shoot the videos. Then, they will be edited on site and uploaded to each subject’s LinkedIn profile. Those who don’t have a LinkedIn profile will be assisted in creating one before they leave. 

“LinkedIn has also been a great partner for the campaign and has donated both digital space as well as a number of InMail offerings, where we’ve had high-profile employers talk about what they’re doing to build opportunity youth talent pipelines,” Rosenblum says.

All grads will also receive an e-mail link to all the assets they have created today. The seven-second résumés are also the primary creative concept behind Grads of Life’s next big advertising push, set to kick off this month. But, the video résumés will help youth on an immediate personal level by landing them a job offer.

“Anything I can do to get in the door and build a career out of right now,” says Juan Rubio, a 23-year-old grad at the event. Rubio only learned about LeadersUp, the recruitment organization working directly with opportunity youth, a few days prior.

“It was just about a couple days ago, I was sitting at home scrolling though Facebook, and they were advertising,” he says. The advertising struck him as suspect, in the same vein as those spam messages touting the ability to make thousands of dollars a month online while working from home. But he decided to give it a shot and entered in his contact information. 

“The next day I got e-mails and text messages. I followed through and showed up here and it turned out to be legit,” he says. “I think it’s a good opportunity. There are not a lot of opportunities for us here in Chicago. If you go to a staffing agency, they just send a bunch of people to work for a couple of days. Here you get to meet the people who get you in the door and get you a job.”

Rubio has come prepared with a “whole stack of résumés” and seems particularly hopeful that he convinced a United employee to accept one. “He wrote some information on the back. I’m not sure what he wrote, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”

Right now he makes a living driving for Uber, but in his life he’s been a lifeguard, an office assistant at a dental practice and a construction worker. He also spent three years in landscaping, where he rose to the rank of a foreman, overseeing a crew of workers, some twice his age.

Its facts like these that seven-second résumés are designed to elicit and highlight. Rubio’s front-line supervisor experience commands a premium in the job market right now, according to Rosenblum.

“We’ve been doing research over the last year with Harvard Business School’s Competitiveness Project and Accenture, looking at talent strategies in the private sector, and one of the things we’ve uncovered is that there’s this really significant pain point for employers in terms of talent around first-line supervisor,” she says. “If you can get employers thinking about bringing opportunity youth in and moving them up and into those first-line supervisor roles, it’s a win-win.”

It certainly would be a win for Rubio, who’s now spent hours hearing from others how much they want him to have a good job. He’s not sure about the seven-second résumé, but he’s willing to do what it takes to get a job.

“At this point, it’s OK to try anything. The only place is up,” he says. 

Zach Brooke is a former AMA staff writer turned freelance journalist. His work has been featured in Chicago magazine, Milwaukee Magazine, A.V. Club and VICE, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Zach_Brooke.