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Across the country some 4.6 million young people ages 16 to 24 aren't in the workforce or receiving an education. On Thursday, big companies from Starbucks to Bank of America, Walmart and FedEx joined together in Atlanta to give them an opportunity.
The companies are part of the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative, a coalition of 50 leading U.S. businesses committed to offering "opportunity youth" a chance at employment. They've made it a goal to reach 1 million hires by the year 2021. At this week's Atlanta Opportunity Fair & Forum at the Georgia World Congress Center, some 5,000 people showed up eager to join the work force in a metro where the rate of disconnected youth stands at 11 percent of the youth population, or some 78,000 young people.
"This commitment begins our conversation about 'who do we want to employ in our stores?' We want to give everyone that first chance — this is a part of our nation that usually gets forgotten about," Rosalind Brewer, chief operating officer of Starbucks, told CNBC. "When we hire these young individuals, they stay with us longer and they promote sooner than the rest of our hires."
The Atlanta fair is one of several that have been held across the country since 2015, and was one of the biggest for the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative yet. Job seekers participated in mock interviews, had their resumes looked at, received advice on what to wear to interviews and even receive on-the-job training demos from companies like Five Guys and Starbucks.
The skills gap is hitting companies of all sizes. There are some 6.1 million unfilled positions in the U.S., and many don't require candidates to have a four-year degree, making disconnected youth a great resource for recruiting.
Some recruiters onsite were a living reminder of what one opportunity can lead to for a young worker. Shannon Brown was hired at FedEx some 40 years ago at 21 in the package handling division, taking advantage of all the company had to offer as he worked his way up the corporate ladder. Today, he's the shipping giant's senior vice president and chief hiring and diversity officer.
"I worked various jobs throughout the organization from human resources, operations jobs to customer service," he said. "FedEx paid for my bachelor's degree, for my master's degree and all of my developmental training. They showed me over 40 years that they're a group of people that care about Shannon Brown, and in return, I gave back to the organization. That's what we are here to do today, to show these kids we care about them and want to help them continue to grow and hopefully build a great career."
Attendees like Atlanta native Elijah Relaford, 22, were eager to get in front of companies.
"I've talked to Walmart, Papa John's and Fedex today, " he said. "The hope is for me to find a job that pays more than $13 an hour. I have a lot of experience in the positions I'm applying for, if they do give me the time of day in an interview, then I'm pretty much going to knock it out of the park."
Others like Darya Bobb, 22, got some help from mom and dad with the resume and attire for the day, and left the fair with offers in hand.
"It was really overwhelming, I've never gotten a job offer like that right on the spot," she said of her offer from Delaware North, a global food service and hospitality company. "I might take it."