By Nataly Garzon, Specialist, Systems Change Strategy at Ready by 21 St. Louis
St. Louis’ limited public transportation infrastructure is often cited as a barrier to accessing employment opportunities, health care, education, and cultural experiences throughout the region. Many of our young people, especially those living in underinvested and isolated neighborhoods, are growing up a short car ride away from community assets they may never be able to access.
As the region frets about the looming skilled worker shortage and the current workforce limitations that left the region uncompetitive for the Amazon expansion, we know we must invest now in the untapped potential of our region’s youth to ensure they are career-ready. Our teens and young adults need opportunities to be exposed to professional environments and develop job skills under the mentorship, supervision, and support of caring adults.
A number of youth employment organizations recruit, train, and place young people in businesses throughout the region. However, inability to pay for transportation keeps many young people from accessing these career-building opportunities that can set them on a path to financial sustainability.
The STL Regional Youth Employment Coalition (RYEC), a newly formed partnership of 15 employment organizations in the region, has been collaborating to identify a solution to this issue. Partners around the table have shared data to better understand the geographic concentration of youth placements for their eight-week employment opportunity (Figure 1).
Originally, it was assumed that most of the young people originated from St. Louis City and North St. Louis County and were placed in summer employment opportunities in West St. Louis County and in St. Charles. The data collected contradicted this by demonstrating that youth were primarily employed in the Central Corridor, a part of the region that’s highly accessible thanks to public transportation.
With regular Metro pricing, young people would have to pay about $160 to access public transportation for the duration of their summer employment—about 10% of their entire potential earnings for a summer. Some existing programs have supported young people by providing a week’s worth of passes, but the rest of the cost was left to youth to carry.
Armed with this information, RYEC advocated for reduced transit fare pricing for youth to ensure that transportation was no longer a barrier to accessing summer employment. As a result of this advocacy, RYEC was selected as a sub-pilot leader of the Gateway Go Program, which provides half-fare transit access for youth ages 13 to 25 thanks to a partnership between the City of St. Louis, St. Louis County, St. Clair County, the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, the St. Clair County Transit District, Bi-State Development, and Metro Transit.
As part of this pilot, RYEC coalition partners pooled resources and leveraged a Wells Fargo Advisors investment to provide free Gateway Go Cards for 435 young people. These Gateway Go Cards were loaded for unlimited use during their two months of summer employment.
Collectively, these young people used their Gateway Go Cards a total of 20,042 times. Nearly all youth indicated that having the Gateway Go Card made it possible for them to get to work and that they were satisfied with their experience using their cards. Many were also able to use the cards for non-work-related commuting, opening up opportunities for them to fully explore our community.
“I really appreciate the opportunity to use this card,” one young person who received a card reflected. “The Gateway Go Card really helped me when I had no other way to go to work or any other place that I had to go. I’m very thankful.”
The St. Louis Regional Youth Employment Coalition is committed to reducing transportation as a barrier to employment. During the summer of 2019, RYEC plans to provide even more youth with loaded Gateway Go Cards and empower them to take advantage of economic, educational, and cultural opportunities that will prepare them to be our region’s future leaders. Bi-State Development and the City of St. Louis are currently evaluating the pilot with some support from RYEC to obtain youth feedback.
As of right now, half-fare transit pricing for youth has only been extended through September 30. To ensure that Gateway Go continues to expand access to opportunity for our region’s youth, we must advocate for the program’s permanent continuation.
As a regional stakeholder, you have a role to play in ensuring youth have better access to jobs and opportunities to explore our community. If you share our belief that our region can and must do more for its young people, we invite you to contact Mayor Krewson’s office today and share your strong support for the continuation of the successful Gateway Go Pilot and expanded mobility for our region’s youth. Together, we can make sure that tomorrow’s leaders have access to the opportunities they need to learn, grow, and connect with the community today.
Nataly Garzon is committed to ensuring racial equity in opportunity. She graduated from Williams College in 2014 with a degree in History and Political Science. Since graduating college, Nataly has worked for two collective impact efforts. In Massachusetts, Nataly lead coalitions working on decreasing the county’s teen birth rate, decreasing youth substance and alcohol abuse, and increasing the high school graduation rate. After three years in Massachusetts, she moved to St. Louis and joined the Ready by 21 St. Louis team in June of 2017. In her role as Specialist, Systems Change Strategies, Nataly spends her time supporting efforts within the space of Social Emotional Learning, and has been standing up the STL Regional Youth Employment Coalition since early 2018.
The STL Regional Youth Employment Coalition, a cross-sector collaborative with a footprint of St. Louis City and St. Louis County with a racial equity lens, is committed to fostering economic empowerment and strengthened quality of life through an equity lens by increasing youth employability, growing a diverse talent pipeline, and impacting systemic change. For 2018-2020, the coalition is focusing on increasing the quality of pre-placement training for youth employment programs, coordinating youth wraparound support for youth in these experiences, and developing an intentional coordinated referral system to credential and apprenticeship training opportunities for youth 14-25 in their footprint.
Since she was a teenager, Nataly has fundamentally believed that youth of color deserve to have the tools at their disposal to succeed as they define it. It is because she holds this value close to heart that she has pursued her current role, and is deeply passionate about her role through Ready by 21.
Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
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