My View with Heather Peeler: Preparing Alexandria’s youth for bright futures in workforce

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My View with Heather Peeler: Preparing Alexandria’s youth for bright futures in workforce
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By Heather Peeler

What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s a common question that many of us routinely ask youth. And yet this question is a significant source of stress for today’s teens. Recent reports document that teens today, also known as Generation Z, are more concerned about their future and their mental health compared to respondents from previous generations. 

In a recent report on the voices of Gen Z from Gallup and the Walton Family Foundation, 56% of teens do not feel prepared for the future. Their most common hope for the future is to “make enough money to live comfortably”; unfortunately, 64% said they have significant barriers to achieving future goals and aspirations. 

We recently facilitated a discussion with ACT for Alexandria’s Youth Council, a cohort of 13 teens from local high schools, about their career aspirations and preparedness. Their perspectives echoed national reports. They feel stress and pressure when thinking about their futures due to unknowns around careers, college and finances. 

This context is an important backdrop for a new initiative that ACT is undertaking with partners across Alexandria to explore how we can strengthen pathways that enable all youth in Alexandria to have access to fulfilling careers, meaningful employment opportunities and brighter futures. 

Last week, 50 leaders from city government, Alexandria City Public Schools, local nonprofits, higher education institutions and local and regional employers came together at Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus to co-create a shared vision of support for the future of Alexandria’s youth. We focused on how we will build systems capable of empowering every young person to imagine, design and achieve a prosperous future. We ended with a commitment to form a cross-sector working group that will undertake action-oriented learning, goal alignment and identification of areas for shared investment. 

A commitment to youth career development and workforce readiness is not new. ACPS’s Equity for All strategic plan highlights an intention to enable students to explore and succeed in post-secondary pathways and a commitment to develop and implement work-based learning opportunities for middle and school students. The City of Alexandria’s Children and Youth Community Plan sets forth a vision where all children and youth are academically successful and career ready. And the Virginia Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act enables partnerships with local government, employers and youth to assist young adults ages 17 to 24 in gaining the skills needed to succeed. 

Despite these efforts, more coordination, investment and commitment are needed. The Alexandria City High School graduation rate for the class of 2023 was 88% for Black students and 71% for Hispanic students, compared to 97% for white students. Too many students are falling through the cracks, putting their futures at risk. ACT’s Youth Council members also noted a need for more experiential learning opportunities like job shadowing and work-based learning. They said the current system for career and workforce development is challenging to navigate. There are not clear entry points, scheduling is too complicated and more relevant, robust offerings are needed. 

Our hope is that this cross-sector working group will build on what is in place and bring new energy and momentum to addressing this critical need. The working group will be defined as an open system that works across silos and is centered in trusting relationships, creativity and aspiration. 

There are many questions we will tackle. For example, how can we construct a system that acts with and for youth, in addition to meeting the needs of all stakeholders like employers and educators? How can we prioritize the youth currently at the “edges” who are not finding success in the current system? What are the cynical narratives about youth, the system, or what’s possible, that limit our thinking and action and how do we shift our mindsets to be more provocative and creative? 

This is an all-hands-on-deck moment. Broad participation will be pivotal in building an ecosystem where all youth and young people in Alexandria can access the education, training and support they need to thrive, excel and truly belong. 

If you would like to be part of the working group, please reach out to me at heather.peeler@actforalexandria.org or my colleague Najmah Ahmad, the working group manager, at Najmah.ahmad@actforalexandria.org 

Let’s come together to empower, support, and guide youth to dream big, think creatively, explore and realize successful futures! 

The writer is president and CEO of ACT for Alexandria. 

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