Gerald Chertavian Is Bridging the Opportunity Gap with Year Up

Nearly 7 million young Americans lack the skills or education to get a job that will pull them out of poverty. But with the formation of the nonprofit Year Up, Gerald Chertavian has created a solution that’s steering thousands of low-income young adults into Fortune 500 companies. What comes next may change your ideas about higher education.

Gerald Chertavian Year Up

Photograph by Christopher Churchill

Today in America, if you’re between the ages of 16 and 24, there’s nearly a 20 percent chance that you have fallen into a dismal chasm known as the opportunity divide: You’re out of work with little more than a high school degree, and have few prospects for ever finding a career.

Gerald Chertavian, a former Wall Street banker and HBS alum, has been obsessed with bridging this gap for the past 14 years. In 2000, he founded Year Up, a workforce-training program that’s provided some 8,500 18-to-24-year-olds with college credits, intense job preparation, and six-month stints at Fortune 500 companies. The key to the program’s success is that students learn 21st-century trades—one of his grads is Mark Zuckerberg’s IT support guy. They’re also taught “non-academic cognitive skills” that employers look for, such as attitude, behavior, grit, and persistence. In short, Chertavian’s building a bridge from poverty to the middle class.

Lately, Chertavian has been striving to reform the very education systems that perpetuate the opportunity gap. To do this, he’s begun incorporating Year Up into community-college curricula in cities like Miami, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. “The fact is, this country doesn’t consume education and work in a linear fashion anymore,” Chertavian says. Ninety-two percent of Americans don’t finish college in four years, and half of those in school work full-time while pursuing a degree.

As Year Up has expanded nationally, the nonprofit has drawn attention from 60 Minutes, not to mention a visit from the president. Here in Boston, Chertavian’s influence is expanding as well—in 2008, Governor Deval Patrick appointed him to serve on the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and last year he tapped Chertavian to chair the Roxbury Community College Board of Trustees. “This is about American ideals of mobility, about American ideals of opportunity,” he says. “It’s about not guaranteeing equality of outcomes, but guaranteeing equality of opportunity.”