Clarence Schwab: A New Year's resolution for America -- In 2020 let national service bring us together

America stands in a deep hole of our own making. Let us resolve in 2020 to stop digging.

With little trust in our leaders and declining faith in each other, America stands in a deep hole of our own making. Let us resolve in 2020 to stop digging. Instead, let’s make more national service with technical training our path out. Make no mistake. As our country is mired in a simmering civil war, it is time for us to lower the heat and try to bridge the divide.

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As for national service, it can instill a sense of civic duty and strengthen communal bonds. In fact, committing time to helping others—whether sustaining national parks, increasing academic achievement, mentoring youth, fighting poverty, or preparing for and responding to disasters—can also yield positive results. Just look at the numbers.

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National service generates societal benefits of about four times social costs and fiscal returns that exceed two times outlays.

Nine out of 10 alumni of AmeriCorps, a network of three primary national service programs, report that their experience improved their ability to solve problems. Eight out of 10 indicate their service helped their career plan. Alumni are more likely to attain a bachelor’s or higher degree than the average American.

Returns may soon grow because of a new private-public partnership. As of this year, participants in, or alumni of AmeriCorps and other programs administered by the federal agency, Corporation for National & Community Service (CNCS), can access Service+Tech for free coding training opportunities, local civic technical hackathons, speaker series events and technical career resources. Cisco, SAP and wealthy Americans fund this, in part, because 918,000 information-technology positions remain unfilled.

Access to such training is in addition to the stipend received during service, and the education grant earned upon completion. It is in addition to the loan forgiveness and debt service deferment in place for those who join after college.

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National service plus technical education also addresses a worsening job trend. While the overall unemployment rate trends favorably at 3.6 percent that of recent college graduates is now higher, inching up to 4 percent. That has not happened before, according to NY Fed data going back to 1990. The unemployment rate for recent grads has typically been at least a full percentage point below that of the U.S. labor market. This concerning change is due to a skills mismatch.

It is good news then that Americans’ interest in participating in service has, over the past decade or so, greatly exceeded the number of openings. Over that period, probably between three and five persons apply for each available AmeriCorps slot.

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Congress could increase the number of available slots, and broaden CNCS’ mission to include striving working and middle-class Americans. It could also attach more volunteers to local hospitals and medical centers to help those battling drug addiction, and to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help maintain the country’s infrastructure. National service should bring Americans of all walks together. Farmers’ children, young adults from the inner city, and kids from the suburbs of Chicago and Dallas.

The cost of expanding service opportunities from about 66,000 members today to 200,000 members would be about $3.0 billion per year. And additional private funding would permit more members to access technical training.

Some might question the government administering such programs. Especially given weaknesses in CNCS bookkeeping. However, CNCS is fixing these shortcomings, migrating accounting and procurement functions to the Treasury’s core financial system. The government can also hire outside vendors to help administer.

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To assist, wealthy Americans could voluntarily finance these national efforts. And encourage their children to serve. As the Spiderman saying goes “With great power comes great responsibility.”

We stand in a hole, before a new difficult period of our national work. Reengaging with our civic values to serve each other could rebuild a stable middle-class. Restore opportunities for upward social and economic mobility. Increase trust in America’s elites. And bring us all closer together.

Clarence Schwab is founder and managing partner of Schwab Capital Management, an investment and advisory firm focused on publicly traded and smaller privately held companies. Follow him on Twitter @SchwabClarence.

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