For a Stronger Workforce, Support Gap Years

Jennifer Cobb Commentary

For a Stronger Workforce, Support Gap Years

What do businesses look for in prospective employees? They want people who are initiative takers, adept communicators and able to work well with others. But ideally, they seek candidates with even more hireworthy traits.

The global workplace is rapidly changing. And organizations depend on their employees being able to think on their feet. They want — and need — people who can problem-solve and learn on the job. Perhaps most importantly, companies crave committed workers with leadership skills who can guide their teams toward complex goals.

This is an Opinion

We'd also like to hear yours. Leave a comment below, tweet to us at @ArkBusiness or
email us.

It can be a tall order to find applicants who fit the bill, but even more so in today’s competitive market. Like the rest of the U.S., Arkansas is experiencing a full-on hiring crunch. And it’s not expected to ease anytime soon.

Whether it’s offering additional benefits or perks like remote work, businesses are finding innovative ways to solve the labor shortage — at least in the near term. But how can we build a capable and ready workforce for the future?

Enter the gap year. Traditionally the path from high school to higher education has been considered a given. We expect students to enroll in a degree, certification or training program or get a job immediately. Far too often, the gap year is seen as a whimsical decision or worse, as a yearlong vacation that could potentially thwart academic or career plans.

A gap year is just the opposite. It sets up individuals — and their future employers — for long-term success.

Take City Year, for example. In Little Rock and 28 other cities across the U.S., City Year recruits AmeriCorps members ages 17-25 for a year of service in local K-12 schools. These diverse teams help advance educational equity by supporting students furthest from opportunity. City Year AmeriCorps members provide students with the academic, emotional and social skills they need to thrive in the classroom and the real world.

As part of their experience, City Year AmeriCorps members receive professional development and continuing education, including exclusive scholarships and programming. They receive training in diversity, equity and inclusion — skills critical to the 21st-century workplace.

And the investment pays off. According to a City Year alumni survey, AmeriCorps members are more likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree — or higher — than the average American adult. And 73% said their service prepared them for their careers, with many choosing to enter related fields like education, government, nonprofit work or medicine, health and social services. Nearly half remain in the communities they served, where they continue to contribute to the local economy.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics details the pros of gap years for students, including “renewed enthusiasm for studies when they return to school” and a better “real-world understanding of their classroom-based learning.” Beyond that, they gain much-needed soft skills. The Society for Human Resource Management found these individuals are better problem-solvers, more adaptable and able to think creatively.

This isn’t to say gap years aren’t challenging.

City Year AmeriCorps members serve in schools full time, from the opening bell through after-school programs. And after long days, these dedicated young adults even help operate our school district’s homework help line for students. But City Year alumni say it’s worth it: More than 90% agree their experience had a significantly positive impact on their lives.

Stereotypes and, sometimes, stigma surround the gap year. But it’s time for our state to move past that.

Imagine the difference we can make for our economy if we create more opportunities for young adults in Arkansas to consider a year of service as a viable career step. It’s a smart way for them to invest in their futures and for us to strengthen our workforce.

Jennifer Cobb is senior vice president and executive director of City Year Little Rock, a nonprofit dedicated to helping students and schools succeed.