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Gonzales, CA: How a small town is solving youth unemployment

  • By Lincoln Ngaboyisonga and Alexandre Dumouza
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Youth unemployment is one of the most alarming economic challenges the United States is currently facing. According to recent reports, 5.5 million youth who are 16-24 are neither enrolled in school nor employed. This statistic represents 12.5% of young adults in the U.S., which is more than double the adult unemployment rate. This problem is nationwide and is even more disparaging in small-town cities such as Gonzales, California. This issue is often a symptom of employment and income issues faced by these kinds of cities. There is a growing focus in California to make sure youth are accessing quality education while obtaining the necessary skills to enter the workforce. Gonzales in particular with a population of approximately 10,000—has an 11% unemployment rate, and 20.4% poverty rate, which are both higher than the California average.

Multiple factors influence youth unemployment. Besides the various familial, social, financial, and educational factors contributing to this issue, the problem is also demographical. Brookings explains that this problem is more prevalent in areas with higher-than-average unemployment rates and other economically destabilizing factors. Such factors include cities facing issues such as de-industrialization (or lack there-of), lower investment rates, shifting economic trends to sectors such as technology, and less densely populated areas with agricultural heritage, Gonzales meets all these criteria.  

Extracurricular Solutions in Gonzales

Solving the challenge of youth unemployment in small cities like Gonzales is not just about preparing young adults to enter the workforce. It is about making sure that employment opportunities are available, and that the training and preparation given to the youth is contextualized to the employment demand and prevalent industries in cities experiencing the same economic and employment issue.

Text Box: Gonzales High School students Pablo Mendoza, 16, Elizabeth Aireola, 15, work in a broccoli field at Pisoni Farms. (Vern Fisher - Monterey Herald)
Gonzales High School students Pablo Mendoza, 16, Elizabeth Aireola, 15, work in a broccoli field at Pisoni Farms. (Vern Fisher – Monterey Herald)

To increase student motivation, Gonzales is coming up with various ways of creating innovative opportunities for teens and young adults. One of them is to create a Teen Innovation Center, which promotes college readiness, social entrepreneurship, academic success and innovation. The proposed project will transform a former medical office into an innovation space where youth in Gonzales can have access to resources such as computers to work on STEM projects, cultivate their artistic side and create new ideas. This proposal was made in a city council decision-making process through the creation of a youth council. The program enabled students to utilize their abilities, add to the innovative ideas and future plans for the city, and express their needs in the program.

Another initiative that is preparing youth to solidify their skills and knowledge is the Wings of Knowledge program. The program, which began in 2015, seeks to empower students by focusing on the curriculum application of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics). According to the co-founder, the program’s purpose is to create a nexus for students to explore local science and engineering, while allowing them to excel at their own pace. What’s unique about this program is that students don’t only learn about such technologies at the comfort of their desk, they get to go out and engage in the field. With the option of joining an agriculture group, students get the opportunity of learning about water studies and climatology, which they can later instruct to younger elementary school students

Success in the Classroom

In conjunction with informal educational activities, the Gonzales school district is already excelling in providing assistance to aspiring youth who are seeking to develop their skills post-high school. Gonzales supports K-12 students by creating a healthy environment where students can find their passions and learn for the betterment of their own educational careers. Other examples emerge from the schools’ website as it serves as an excellent guide for students seeking higher education. Gonzales high school also offers several initiatives by providing students with options such as their career exploration from their school curriculum, and a career technical day. They also have an annual college-career week at the high school, which can spark a career interest in post-secondary education. 

Knowledge, skills, and confidence are the cornerstone of accessing desirable jobs in the U.S. for youth employment. Programs such as those offered in Gonzales provide a foundation to exercise job readiness. Despite the various challenges behind youth unemployment, Education, public-private partnerships, and grassroots initiatives must also play a factor as part of a holistic process that can create ideation, innovation, and spark new ways of connecting skills and knowledge to contribute to future jobs. No matter how many services attempt to enhance youth opportunities, for this process to be effective, youth development must be at the center to create impact and stimulate growth.  


College and Career Readiness. (n.d.). Retrieved February 15, 2020, from https://www.gonzalesusd.net/apps/pages/index.jsp?uREC_ID=1485777&type=d&pREC_ID=1634117

Disconnected Youth. (n.d.). Retrieved February 15, 2020, from https://opportunitynation.org/disconnected-youth/

Gonzales, California. (2019, December 10). Retrieved February 15, 2020, from https://www.rwjf.org/en/library/features/culture-of-health-prize/2019-winner-gonzales-california.html

Gonzales, CA. (n.d.). Retrieved February 18, 2020 from Gonzales, CA

Reyes, J., & Monterey Herald. (2018, September 11). Know your roots: Wings of Knowledge program educates students and farmers. Retrieved February 15, 2020, from https://www.montereyherald.com/2018/02/02/know-your-roots-wings-of-knowledge-program-educates-students-and-farmers/

Ross, M., & Bateman, N. (2018, January 31). Millions of young adults have entered the workforce with no more than a high school diploma. Retrieved February 15, 2020, from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2018/01/31/millions-of-young-adults-have-entered-the-workforce-with-no-more-than-a-high-school-diploma/

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