Everybody Deserves a First Chance: Why We’re Working to Create Career Opportunities for “Youth of Promise”

September 23, 2022

Yellow background with illustrated text that reads: Everybody deserves a first chance: Why we're working to create career opportunities for youth who face systemic barriers to success and well-being.

There are 4.4 million “youth of promise” in this country—young people 16-24 years old who’ve been marginalized by and excluded from America’s systems of education, employment, and opportunity. These young people, their families, and their communities deserve better.

That’s why we’re proud and excited to be joining Unlock Potential, a new program spearheaded by the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice that will create real career opportunities for young people who face institutional racism and systemic barriers to success and well-being.

We like to call it “first-chance hiring.” Here’s why it matters—and how it’ll work.


Disrupting the Prison Pipeline

We’ve worked for years, both internally and with our partners, to help people who’ve been incarcerated, or have experienced other barriers to employment, find jobs and start meaningful careers.

But, to really advance racial equity, increase economic mobility, and break intergenerational cycles of incarceration and poverty, we need to do more than provide a second chance—we have to stop young people from being pushed into the criminal legal system in the first place.

What difference can a first chance make? The 4.4 million youth we mentioned are five times more likely to have a criminal record than their peers, and 33% of them live in poverty. That’s no coincidence. Research has shown that a criminal record can have a severe impact on people’s lives:

  • The unemployment rate for people who’ve been incarcerated is 27% (a record high in US history).
  • A first-time incarceration reduces a person’s lifetime earnings by more than 30%.

The importance of second-chance employment efforts cannot be overstated. But hiring individuals when they’re released from prison isn’t enough—we have to be taking steps to stop them ending up there in the first place. Data show that meaningful employment opportunities are one of the most impactful ways to prevent future incarceration. Unlock Potential will create those first chances.

— Matthew McCarthy, Ben & Jerry’s CEO


Economic Justice = Racial Justice

Because of America’s entrenched systemic racism, barriers to education and employment disproportionately impact people of color—leading to low-wage work and hard-to-break cycles of generational poverty.

  • 55% of those “youth of promise” are Black and Brown—in some places, young Black and Brown people are up to six times more likely to be subjected to systemic barriers (e.g., education and employment systems that fail to support or provide opportunities for them) than white people.
  • Black people are incarcerated at nearly five times the rate of white people.
  • One out of every three Black boys born in the US today can expect to be sentenced to prison (compared to one out of six Latino boys and one out of 17 white boys).
  • Racism in the education system results in the overpolicing and disproportionate disciplining of Black students, which leads to missed classroom time and is a major contributor to the school-to-prison pipeline.

One study found that the US poverty rate would have dropped by 20% between 1980 and 2004 if not for mass incarceration and the chronic underemployment of people with criminal records. Let’s be clear: Having a criminal record has a crippling impact on a person’s employment  prospects and potential future wealth, regardless of their race. But it’s striking and disturbing to consider that a white person who was formerly incarcerated is able, on average, to accumulate more wealth than a Black person who has no criminal record at all. 

How do we address these disparities and remove barriers to employment for Black and Brown youth? That’s where Unlock Potential comes in.

Unlock Potential is a critical component in the advancement of our racial equity work. Creating meaningful career opportunities for Black and Brown at-risk youth supports skill development and economic mobility in the communities we serve and exist in.

— Allie Reid, Ben & Jerry's Sr. Retail Racial Equity and Inclusion Manager


How Unlock Potential Will Work

Unlock Potential is planning to launch a 12-month pilot program this fall. Ben & Jerry’s, along with the American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact, Delta Airlines, and Sam’s Club, is in the first group of businesses to participate.

According to Unlock Potential, candidates for the program are youth 16-24 years old who have experienced one or more of the following:

  • The juvenile justice system
  • A parent incarcerated while they were age 18 or younger
  • Sex or human trafficking
  • The foster-care system

Assisted by the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice, select Ben & Jerry’s Scoop Shops will be matched with prospective hires to provide jobs with real opportunity for advancement. Participants will also be connected with local wraparound support services through Persevere, a national non-profit, to ensure that they have everything they need to succeed.


Business Should Be a Force for Good

This year the number of job vacancies has hit 11 million! We hear every day about how much trouble businesses are having filling jobs—and yet America continues to ignore and overlook 4.4 million talented young people who so far haven’t received the resources, support, and opportunities they need to live the American dream.

We believe that providing jobs to these young people can help solve the labor shortage, help employers and companies to thrive by tapping into a diverse talent pool, and disrupt the prison pipeline.

If the pilot program goes well, our plan is to scale Unlock Potential across our company—and we hope other businesses and industries will join us. We can’t wait to get started.