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Next Wave of Economic Benefits Start with Today’s Students

By: Jeremy Race

Definitions and data can provide meaningful insight, clarity and direction.  Here’s how.

First, consider the definition of economic development: “Work to align human and natural resources of the community to match both global and regional markets, and strive to create new jobs that fit both the people and the place.”

Next, the definition of community economic development: “Actions taken by an organization to improve the economic situation of local residents (income and assets) and local businesses (profitability and growth); and enhance the community’s quality of life as a whole.”

How do these definitions relate to a youth-serving non-profit organization?  The answer may surprise you: they define what we do at Junior Achievement (JA) of Southwest New England, every day and in every community where our programs are delivered.  Yet, JA and economic development are not often talked about in the same breath.  It’s time we change that.

Last year, JA worked side-by-side with roughly 3,000 people from business and the community who spent time in elementary, middle and high school classrooms teaching more than 45,000 young people in Connecticut the basics of financial literacy, work readiness, and entrepreneurship.  This year, we are on pace to serve 47,000 students.

Each year, we also work with dozens of companies that host students on-site at their facilities to provide real-world insights into the world of work.  Volunteers from these companies deliver powerful lessons from the JA curriculum, while simultaneously introducing students to careers and industries that are both in-demand and in need of future workers. 

Consider these most telling statistics from JA USA’s extensive program evaluations:

  • 1 in 5 JA alumni will go into the career or industry of their JA volunteer.  That’s roughly 10,000 per year in Connecticut alone – who will grow up to do the same, or a similar, job as their JA mentor.
  • JA alumni are 143% more likely to start their own business – a remarkable statistic at a time when the opportunities for entrepreneurship have never been greater.

If that’s not “aligning resources to match global and regional markets and create jobs to fit both people and place,” then I’m not sure what is.  JA’s flagship curriculum, the JA Company Program, has helped young people (for the past 100 years) to create an actual business and run that company for 15 weeks, experiencing the highs and lows of entrepreneurship, but most importantly providing relevant hands-on experience filling actual needs in the community through business creation. 

As history tells us, business creation is what once made the Connecticut economy so strong.  In 1938, National Geographic magazine sent a reporter to Connecticut to explore the business landscape.  The result, “Connecticut, Prodigy of Ingenuity,” included this: 

“Connecticut is amazing.  To the newcomer not well trained in mechanics it is a land of sheer magic.  Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee could not have bewildered the citizens of King Arthurs’ Court more than modern Connecticut manufacturers bewildered me.”

That was 80 years ago. Recent data ranked Connecticut 39th in economic vitality, 44th in employment growth, and among the bottom five states as a locale to operate a business.  Sometimes, we need to look backward to move forward.  Change has to start somewhere, and what better place than with our young people. 

In the next few years, in accordance with our strategic plan, we intend to:

  • Reach more students, and have a greater impact on those students.  Our objective is to reach 50,000 students by 2020 and 55,000 by 2022. 
  • Spend more time with students, by growing programs like the JA Company program and launching JA Inspire, a statewide career inspiration fair for 8th graders.
  • More extensively engage the community.  If we are to reach 50,000 students we will need an additional 200-300 volunteers and additional revenue to support those efforts. 

The moral of this story is that Junior Achievement is much more than a fun activity for kids.  Preparing more students for the workforce with both softs-skills and technical skills will reap dividends for generations to come.  It’s no secret that stronger employees are stronger contributors to their companies or organizations – improving “local businesses profitability and growth.” 

As more people and more businesses share their knowledge, expertise and personal experiences with students, I will be so bold as to say that we are contributing to the “enhancement of the community’s quality of life as a whole.”

 ___________________

Jeremy Race is President and CEO of Junior Achievement of Southwest New England.                                                                              

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