Companies Like Chipotle Are Recognizing ‘Opportunity Youth’ as a Way to Develop Workers and Engage Communities


The COVID pandemic devastated America’s frontline workforce, disproportionately its workers of color. This summer, as employers looked to rebound and federal benefits remained, employees and job seekers drew a line, refusing to work for jobs with insufficient pay, benefits, or opportunities for development.

For Kimberly Pham, a member of Opportunity Youth United‘s National Council of Young Leaders, this push for better jobs has been a focus of her OYU activism for the past four years. And her advocacy is based on lived experience.

Pham told JUST Capital that growing up in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, she saw local government neglect her community, and that she withdrew from middle school when its gifted student programming was defunded. At 17, she decided to confront the issue and “became an advocate of her education,” and started her involvement in activism. She made her way through multiple alternative education programs and enrolled in Temple University to pursue a bachelor’s degree in social work. She knows that the success she’s had following a major educational setback is a rare one.

“You’re not going to get a lot of students like me who stayed really consistent or motivated,” she said, referring to the unorthodox path she took after initially giving up on school. “When you’re sitting by, you’re not going to school, you’re losing friends, your family is not making their way up on an economic level – all you’re seeing is poverty.”

Pham used her personal experience as motivation to help others starting from similar situations, which is what brought her to working with “opportunity youth.” A term coined by President Barack Obama’s administration, it refers to young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who, like Pham, became disconnected from school or work. The Aspen Institute estimates that 4.6 million Americans, or one in nine in that age group, meet the criteria. OYU was founded in 2012, and as part of its mission to prevent opportunity youth from giving up and being given up on, has actively engaged corporations and other programs that work with these companies.

Through mentorship and training, Pham said, young people who would otherwise not be building careers come out with skills they can apply to jobs and are accustomed to “always seeing their areas of improvement.”

When OYU presents its recommendations to corporate leaders for engaging these youth, it frames them as a way to “increase opportunity and decrease poverty in America.” And while JUST does not track opportunity youth-specific data, programs like those overseen by OYU are linking business strategy with community investment, aligning them with the stakeholder model of leadership our years of polling has shown to be an increasingly popular way of creating a stronger, more equitable economy.

Stronger Communities and Better Business

In today’s tight labor market, opportunity youth represent a potent target for recruitment. By playing a role in their path to financial stability, companies can reinvest in their own communities through the development of local hiring and training pipelines for those who might otherwise be left behind in the local workforce. Doing so successfully, however, requires recognition that our labor market is rife with societal obstacles that disproportionately impact opportunity youth, given their age, lack of degreed education and workforce experience, typically low socioeconomic status, and over-representation among people of color. Each of these characteristics intersects with systemic barriers to workforce entry, retention, and advancement that must be thoughtfully integrated in any opportunity youth programming, and a corporate focus on internal diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) across company policy and practice can help to mitigate those obstacles.

Additionally, as companies seek to fill the hiring gap it’s vital that they’re taking cues from their stakeholders such as these youth leaders, who remind us what companies should be prioritizing to attract and retain young workers and demonstrate how they can advance their careers.

Employers such as Bank of America, Chipotle, FedEx, Hilton, and Vertex Pharmaceuticals have recognized the potential this sector represents and joined hiring initiatives and partnered with local organizations to improve their ability to recruit, retain, and advance opportunity youth.

Joe Albano, Senior Manager of National Recruiting at Chipotle, has participated in opportunity youth hiring events and views the demographic group as vital to the company’s success, due to its need for entry-level positions that do not require secondary degrees. Albano explained that recruiting young adults is a priority for Chipotle because young workers can stay with the company and develop. “We want people who are very optimistic and charismatic looking to join a growing company and to grow with us,” he said.

Be intentional about career development in hiring

Companies risk alienating opportunity youth through certain hiring practices and even by ongoing misunderstanding of what’s most important to them. For example, OYU’s recommendations highlight how vital targeted internships and hiring initiatives are, but insist that such positions offer a decent wage, health insurance, the ability to take sick days, and access to training and education. OYU also has joined many advocacy organizations in confronting exclusionary hiring practices, calling for employers to “Ban the Box” and remove the requirement that potential employees indicate whether they have a criminal conviction from applications. JUST Capital data reveals that only 6% of companies within the Restaurant and Leisure industry disclose a second chance policy, which can include a ban the box policy or a policy to recruit individuals with criminal records.

Companies can also hone their recruitment by offering benefits that respond to youth needs – and highlighting these benefits in hiring interviews. Albano said that at an opportunity youth-focused job fair in Chicago, conversations with potential recruits not going as he expected. He initially led with the short-term perks of the job, but soon found that applicants were more concerned about their ability to pay for college. Noting the long-term aspirations many of these applicants had, he began to instead emphasize Chipotle’s education assistance and free degree programs, which are available to frontline crew members.

Iris Vazquez Morales, a Chipotle Field Recruiting Analyst, similarly focuses on the policies with long-term results when working with opportunity youth, such as by providing a clear pathway for advancement through the company. She said she knows how important they are from her own experience of joining Chipotle’s team as a frontline restaurant crew member and working her way up to general manager, utilizing education assistance for her degree, and moving into a corporate position.

For young adults facing systemic barriers and economic exclusion, subsidizing their education is a meaningful way to make working at a large corporation an appealing, long-term opportunity. Data JUST collected from the 928 largest publicly traded U.S. companies shows that 81.8% of those in the Restaurants & Leisure industry provide some form of education assistance, like tuition reimbursement, to their employees. While it’s encouraging that most companies within the industry provide such a benefit, JUST’s previous analysis suggests that further disclosure on the benefits’ eligibility requirements and uptake – particularly for frontline workers and across demographic groups – are vital to better understanding the role tuition reimbursement actually plays in equitably advancing career opportunities for marginalized groups like opportunity youth.

Getting them into the workforce is an important first step, but as Mike Swigert, Senior Program Manager at The Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions, told us, “rapid attachment hiring strategies” are “insufficient for what young people need to be able to advance.” Instead, frontline managers must be aware of their team members’ lived experiences, trained in mentoring and coaching to facilitate their success on the job, and educated on how to connect young people with social services support.

Ensure accessible opportunities for more equitable retention and advancement

In order to ensure that inexperienced workers – like opportunity youth – find success, companies must prioritize training and upskilling opportunities across their workforce.  OYU’s recommendations reinforce the need for corporate policy focused on such measures, with a call for employers to “provide the training, education opportunities, and support systems that enable employees to advance.” Rather than relying on particularly talented managers to go the extra mile, corporations can ensure that mentorship is a company-wide practice by providing adequate training and resources for managers.

D’Andre Cooper, another Chipotle Field Recruiting Analyst who began as a restaurant crew member, told us about his early managers’ patience and willingness to work closely with him, “helping me, coaching me, really being there to develop me.” Their guidance wasn’t disconnected from what Chipotle required of its team members, but emerged throughout the time Cooper spent working his way through the company’s many trainings and lessons.

Opportunity youth face barriers to workforce access beyond a lack of job experience. Sometimes that accessibility is literal: Work locations that are not easily accessible by public transit may make a job untenable for a young worker without other forms of transportation. By simply being attentive in location-based hiring, hiring managers lower the possibility that transportation barriers would force crew members to quit.

Chipotle’s Vazquez Morales found similar barriers when taking over as manager at a restaurant in a wealthy Florida neighborhood. “We really had to struggle with getting people,” Vazquez Morales said. She ensured her people felt prioritized by “really, really focusing on training them and keeping them, having honest conversations, cheering them on.” Those conversations ultimately clarified how to meet their needs, such as putting a combination of flexible and guaranteed hours into place to make her team’s long commutes worthwhile. When managers like Vazquez Morales recognize and work with the obligations and obstacles opportunity youth employees face outside of work, their team benefits.

And as OYU’s youth leaders remind us, companies can facilitate such management practices with a series of baseline benefits. Their recommendations specify the importance of “a decent minimum wage, health insurance, and sick days (including care for sick family members)” in ensuring that opportunity youth are supported by their employers. JUST’s data shows that only 9% of companies within the Restaurant and Leisure industry disclose providing sick days for non-exempt employees, and hourly, frontline workers – often, opportunity youth – fall under non-exempt status.

To make opportunity youth initiatives work, it is important that employers recognize the familial, educational, and economic obligations these young people juggle, and that they provide geographic and scheduling accommodations that prioritize understanding employees’ lives beyond work. Companies should also take into account how flexible workplace policies alongside stable, predictable schedules positively impact lower-wage employees rather than prioritizing their salaried workforce in extending such accommodating policies.

(Opportunity Youth United)

Practice DEI through listening and meeting new recruits where they are

Many of these recruitment, retention, and advancement strategies wouldn’t be effective in supporting opportunity youth without embedding equity and inclusion into corporate culture, policy, and practice. Such substantive, company-wide efforts require more than simply signaling support for DEI. JUST data shows that while 91% of publicly traded companies within the Restaurant and Leisure industry disclose having a diversity, equity and inclusion policy, a markedly lower percentage, 18%, have diversity targets to incentivize and measure success of diversity and inclusion goals. Such goals quantify and specify the demographic representation companies plan to achieve within a given timeline, which in turn requires intentional focus on equity throughout their recruitment, retention, and advancement practices.

Chipotle’s Cooper said he’s been particularly attentive to the reality that “people come from all walks of life” and the need to “meet people where they’re at” is vital to creating a culture where everyone can thrive. “We really want everyone to bring their true selves to work and believe our culture is better for it,” he said. Cooper told us he’s recognized the importance of sitting down with both potential recruits and current crew members to ask questions like, “Where do you see yourself? Where would you like to be? Where do you want to go? What are you looking for in an employer?” He emphasized that there is no right answer to these questions for Chipotle, but they allow him to determine how each employee’s hopes and strengths align with what the company has to offer.

Prioritize accountability through tracking and disclosing progress

Companies can’t only rely on stories of success to gauge their progress on recruiting, retaining, and advancing key demographics within their workforce. Instead, they must be willing to track and disclose how they’re investing in security, opportunity, and equity for their workers. As OYU’s Pham said, “Transparency is key. Where are your resources?” Publicizing a tuition reimbursement program shows what’s possible, but only tracking and disclosure of its participation rate and eligibility policy can demonstrate success. Other metrics help deepen that understanding, such as demographic disaggregation of retention and advancement or the standardization of an internal hiring metric that allows comparability across companies.

Without such publicly available metrics, it’s hard to tell how extensively advancement for opportunity youth and those historically marginalized among them manifests in any company’s internal promotions. Few companies currently do this, but disclosure provides a clearer picture of the success DEI, hiring, training, and advancement policies have on improving outcomes for employees across gender, race, ethnic and age demographics – including opportunity youth.

At JUST Capital, we know that identifying successful corporate policies and practices begins with the assessment and disclosure that allow accountability, and it’s no different for those focused on opportunity youth. By thoughtfully embedding DEI within recruitment, retention, and advancement practices, companies can find the flexibility, intentionality, and work culture opportunity youth need to meet their potential. And in combination with consistent disclosure, corporate America can begin to build sustainable relationships with opportunity youth – and, ultimately, take a long-term, holistic approach to their internal equity commitments.

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