Service Year Alliance Connects Young People With Debt-Free Gap Year Opportunities to Build Skills

Service Year Alliance Promotes Debt Free Gap Years And Career Building
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Adam West
By: Adam West
Updated: September 23, 2021
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In a Nutshell: Service Year Alliance is an organization that connects young people to service opportunities across the United States and beyond. Young people earn valuable professional skills through a year of service that can help them become strong leaders and increase their earnings when they enter their careers. Working in civilian, military, or public service also tends to improve a young person’s performance in higher education, which can open lucrative career paths that provide an easier time in paying down student loan debt. Several new pieces of legislation supported by Service Year Alliance, aim to expand funding for service organizations. This, in turn, will make service year opportunities more accessible and feasible for a wider range of young people.

Gap years are common in many nations around the world. After finishing public education, it’s a chance for young people to travel, see new parts of the world, experience new cultures, and gain work experience before committing to their future career paths, whether that involves college or entering directly into the workforce.

For many young people, gap years can take the form of service years: signing on with an organization that does charitable work for communities in need. While the pay for this work is nothing to write home about, it’s an opportunity to help others, gain hands-on experience in practical work, and bolster their resumé with potential employers and educational institutions.

Service Year Alliance Logo

Service Year Alliance connects young people with organizations that offer these opportunities. Service Year Alliance does not host service year programs, and people do not serve with them directly. Instead, Service Year Alliance supports service organizations with resources and tools to help them improve and scale their programs. And it advocates for additional funding for service organizations at the federal and local levels.

The group also raises awareness about service year programs among young people who stand to personally and professionally benefit from these experiences.

“By running a national recruitment campaign to reach young people and our Serve America Together campaign to influence thought leaders and policymakers, we work to change our culture to make national service part of growing up in America,” said Kristen Bennett, Chief Strategy Officer at Service Year Alliance.

Expanding Access to Gap-Year Service Opportunities

Service Year Alliance was founded in 2016, and is the product of a merger of The Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute, ServiceNation, and the Service Year Exchange at the National Conference on Citizenship — three organizations committed to fostering a national culture of service.

“We put our individual brands aside and came together as one organization because it was the best way to advance our shared mission of making a year of service a common expectation and opportunity for all young Americans,” Bennett said.

To help raise the profiles of these opportunities among young people who are completing high school, Service Year Alliance operates and maintains ServiceYear.org. This is a state-of-the-art online marketplace that matches young, service-minded people with paid service-year opportunities.

The platform allows users to select the service area they’re interested in pursuing, whether it’s economic, legal, disaster, disability, or a wide range of others. And it also allows them to view opportunities based on where they’d like to travel.

“ServiceYear.org launched in 2015, and it has been hosted and continuously refined by Service Year Alliance since the organization’s formation in 2016,” Bennett said. “Along with featuring service year opportunities offered through AmeriCorps, ServiceYear.org features non-federally funded domestic opportunities meeting its certification criteria, as well as international opportunities offered through the Peace Corps. The platform works to support service year corps members all the way from when they first learn about a service year through their transition into becoming service year alums.”

Service Cultivates Sought-After Professional Skills

Service years hold great benefits for the people and communities they help. But they also offer equally great benefits for those individuals who devote their time to helping.

Young people who develop real-world professional and leadership skills through service-year work are highly sought after by employers. Over 600 Employers of National Service actively recruit from the body of AmeriCorps and Peace Corps national service alumni.

Service-year alumni themselves are more likely to cite leadership and organizational skills on their resumés, and they develop those skills during their time in service programs. Specifically, 79% of AmeriCorps alumni report that their service years were defining professional experiences that prepared them for career success afterward.

They often begin those careers in higher-paying roles than peers who do not participate in service year programs. Specifically, service-year alumni who enter community and social services do so in occupations with higher-than-average salaries.

Other career fields that pay premium salaries to service-year alumni are business and finance. A higher ratio of service-year alumni are placed in project management roles compared with peers with similar work experience in the same fields — but with no service work.

“Service years transform lives, strengthen communities, and fuel civic renewal,” Bennett said. “Specifically, service years are a terrific workforce development pathway. They are a talent pipeline well-suited to young adults that combines work-based learning and career development with a motivating social purpose.”

Alums Experience Greater Educational Success

Service year experience is a valuable asset not only for young people directly entering the workforce after high school, but also for those choosing to complete their higher education first. In 2018, Service Year Alliance partnered with Burning Glass on a study that found that service-year alumni complete their bachelor’s degrees at a higher rate than their peers.

According to the study, 24% of alumni who have completed a service year but do not have a bachelor’s degree during service go on to earn one. In contrast, only 11% of their peer group complete a bachelor’s degree after two years of full-time work experience. And, of those service-year alumni who go on to earn their degrees, 75% have no prior college experience and complete full four-year degree programs.

Whether someone enters their service year with some or no college credits under their belt, the experience offers an opportunity for introspection and personal growth. They can learn more about working in a particular area and build skills that will benefit not only their professional career but their subsequent academic career as well.

Service Year Alliance Graphic

In addition to building work ethic and real-world experience, service years can also offer financial benefits. Young people participating in service work are paid for their time by the service organization itself, money that can fund their higher education. Two hundred higher education institutions across the nation match AmeriCorps’ education award because they recognize the value of adding a student with service experience to their campus.

Service Year Alliance conducts outreach and advocacy with educational institutions to help them attract and retain students with this sort of experience. These efforts can help students mitigate loan debt so they earn their degrees without a financial burden that will inhibit their quality of life after graduation and into the early years of their careers.

New Legislation Will Expand Service and Rewards

Service years are not yet normalized among youth culture in the United States. Service Year Alliance continues to work to change that, raising the visibility of a service year and encouraging more young people to take part in the opportunities it offers.

At the same time, the federal government is also working to make service years more accessible and appealing to young people. The American Rescue Plan, for example, included $1 billion of additional funding for AmeriCorps.

“This additional funding allows for an increase in the national service living allowance, making the opportunity to serve more accessible to all Americans, and represents the largest investment in national service in decades,” Bennett said.

Additionally, there have been a handful of bills introduced to Congress with the goal of creating a Civilian Climate Corps. This organization would provide an opportunity for young people to serve while gaining valuable experience that will put them on track for high-paying jobs while helping the U.S. mitigate the ongoing climate crisis. Service Year Alliance and more than 120 other organizations participated in releasing a letter to urge Congress to pass at least $30 billion to support the creation of the CCC.

This proposed group has the potential to increase living allowances for service participants and to increase the education award offered to alumni. Both of these factors will make service more appealing and accessible.

“Over 80 lawmakers came together in a letter, which Service Year Alliance signed on to, urging the inclusion of the Civilian Climate Corps in the final budget reconciliation deal,” Bennett said.

Finally, the bipartisan CORPS Act, which Service Year Alliance has endorsed, aims to likewise raise living allowances and increase education awards to double the maximum available value of Pell grants. Altogether, these initiatives would help make service a more feasible prospect for many young people who want to help communities across the nation while building skills and resources that will help them succeed in their educational and professional careers.