American Dream Competition

America was built on the promise “that if you work hard, you can do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send kids to college and put away money for retirement. The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive. No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important.”

– Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, 2012[i]

Over the past five years, alarm bells have been sounding as the American public works to pull itself out of the Great Recession. Despite the promise of the American Dream, and although more young people are pursuing their dreams through college, young college graduates have not been succeeding as a cohort.  They are not finding quality jobs and are facing mounting college debt[ii]. Over half of recent college grads are either unemployed or underemployed.[iii] In sum, our young people are in danger of having the American Dream pass them by. 

The twin crises of persistent unemployment and the so-called “talent gap” are challenging our politicians, academics and employers alike – not to mention young workers, whose unemployment rate is twice the national average.  Long after the turnaround of corporate profitability, the US unemployment rate remains stubbornly high at 7.3%[iv] while the US youth unemployment rate between the ages of 16 and 24 is 16.3%.[v]  Moreover, 3.4 million Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 have never been in school or work after the age of 16, and another 3.3 million have not progressed through college or secured a stable footing in the labor market.[vi]

Paradoxically, employers are struggling to fill positions:  it has been harder to fill jobs over the past five years, since before the recession began, despite the over-abundance of job seekers and greater numbers going to college.  Manpower found in its 2012 employer survey that 50% of U.S. employers are struggling to fill positions, which is more than double the rate when the recession started in 2008.[vii]  Chief among the reasons cited by employers were a shortage of applicants and a lack of experience.[viii]  Nationwide, 3.4 million available jobs remain unfilled.[ix]  And many employers are bracing themselves for further talent shortages in the future, leading Oxford Economics to predict that the U.S. will become one of the hardest countries in which to source talent.[x]  According to the World Economic Forum, the talent gap is going to be a challenge for employers everywhere. They predict that to sustain economic growth, by 2030 the United States will need to add more than 25 million workers and Western Europe will need to add more than 45 million workers to the workforce.[xi]

This case of “talent mismatch” and the lack of tools to address it can be illustrated by the Chicago problem:  According to a 2012 Atlantic Monthly article, Chicago’s municipal government has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars on job training, yet still has a 9.4% unemployment rate and 100,000 job openings.[xii]  To add perspective, with 4 million people in the Chicago metro area in the workforce, the ratio of unfilled job openings to unemployed people is more than one out of four.  If Chicagoans had the right skills, the unemployment rate would drop by one-fourth. 

What is clear is that many jobs lost four years ago have not returned, but rather new types of jobs have been created.  These new, unfilled jobs are in healthcare, education, finance, sales, IT, engineering and other skilled trades.  At the same time, technology continues to drive rapid change in the economy and in society.  What a computer sciences student learns during her freshman year in college may well be obsolete by her senior year.  Old ways of organizing – the assembly line built on repetition – are being replaced by fluid teams.  At the same time, the algorithm, artificial intelligence and the Web are replacing intellectual but repetitive jobs such as drafting and even driving, through advancements like computer-aided design (CAD), self-driving cars, and other cutting-edge technologies. 

The graph below illustrates how the job market has changed over the past several decades, trending from an industrial era that required mastering non-cognitive, routine activities to a tech era defined by change that requires non-routine, complex thinking.

Source: Autor, D.; Levy, F. and Murnane, R. (2001)

21st Century Workplace Skills

As the American Dream becomes more elusive, we need to rethink  what it will take to succeed in the 21st century.  For starters, what are the critical skills, and how do we help people access these skills to succeed in the new job market?  Thought leaders have shared the critical importance of entrepreneurship, empathy, team skills, leadership and persuasion.

Tom Friedman, in a The New York Times piece, writes that employers “are all looking for the same kind of people—people who not only have the critical thinking skills to do the value-adding jobs that technology can’t, but also people who can invent, adapt and reinvent their jobs every day, in a market that changes faster than ever.”[xiii]  Fast Company claims that “empathy is the most powerful leadership tool” because the best way to influence others is to help them believe that your idea is in their best interest, which requires that you “become the other person and go from there.”[xiv]   The MIT Sloan Management Review posits that we are just seeing the beginnings of exponential change happening in business and society as technological innovation and digital intelligence pervade every industry including traditionally low-tech ones. This means that computers will take over ever increasing numbers and types of jobs because they can perform better than humans can.  Skills that will remain in demand will be in analysis, negotiation, team dynamics, communication, framing problems, persuasion and nurturing.[xv]  CISCO, in its paper The Learning Society, puts forward that the new skills that will be necessary to thrive in this century are primarily:  analysis, self-initiative, leading through influence, creativity and action, critical thinking, empathy, communication and working ethically.[xvi]

According to Robert Litan of the Kauffman Foundation, between 1980 and 2005, virtually all of the net new jobs in the US were created by firms that were less than five years old  – which is to say, startups.[xvii]  At the same time, the same entrepreneurial creativity and initiative needed to start a venture is required to find and keep the right job. Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, articulates this point in an interview with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman by saying: “No career is a sure thing anymore. The uncertain, rapidly changing conditions in which entrepreneurs start companies is what it’s now like for all of us fashioning a career. Therefore you should approach career strategy the same way an entrepreneur approaches starting a business.” [xviii]

Each employer we have spoken with – from tech to retail to healthcare to the food industry – tells us that the skills most needed on their teams are, broadly speaking:  entrepreneurship, teamwork, leadership and empathy.  These four core skills we refer to as “changemaker skills” because they are what it takes to envision and lead change. 

Philips North America told us:  “At Philips, we seek people with a passion for innovation – we produce breakthrough solutions that have never been introduced.  Also, because we empower our workforce to create and drive their own individual development plans, motivated self-starters are big qualifiers for us.  Having an employee base with strong ethics is critical to us and being results-oriented is necessary in today’s global business environment.  Lastly, we’ve identified three critical attributes that our workforce must embrace to successfully meet our mission and market goals:  Taking Ownership, Teaming up to Excel, and being Eager to Win.” 

According to an Oxford Economics survey of 352 human resources executives, the number-one skill that is in highest demand in the next five to ten years is the “ability to consider and prepare for multiple scenarios” – in other words, the ability to master change.[xix]  The chart below details the top skills in demand according to 352 HR professionals surveyed. 

Bob Chauvin, President of Tyco SimplexGrinnell, commented to us, “The ability to master change is one of the key skills we look for in our management hires.”  In an economy that is defined by accelerating change, being able to adapt to and lead change is essential.  Clay Parker, President of the Chemical Management Division of BOC Edwards, puts it this way:  “I can guarantee the job I hire someone to do will change or may not exist in the future, so this is why adaptability and learning skills are more important than technical skills.”[xx]

If we believe that we are facing an era of accelerating change, and that the skills required to succeed in this era are the entrepreneurial and leadership skills involved in creating change, and that these skills are hard to come by in traditional educational settings, and thus there is a skills gap, then how are we to achieve the American Dream?  How will young people acquire the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century?  We believe the answer to this question is key to solving the unemployment and underemployment problem that so many young people face today, and thus ensuring the future of American productivity. 

We believe there are solutions out there that are already helping young people achieve the American dream – and not only young college graduates, but all young people.  These solutions may come in different forms: they may augment or replace formal education, they may focus on specific demographics of young people, or they may be geared toward specific careers.  This competition will find new, innovative solutions to equipping young people with the changemaker skills that employers seek and the pathways to find and secure promising careers.  These innovations will be poised for national expansion and collectively will have the potential to skill up tens or even hundreds of thousands of young workers. Backed by some of the top corporations in the world, the innovations sourced through this competition will have the potential to change the pattern of how young people learn and prepare for 21st century careers across the U.S. and everywhere. 



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Winner is Announced

April 29, 2014
  • Launch
    December 19, 2013
  • Early Entry Deadline
    January 31, 2014
  • Entry Deadline
    March 16, 2014
  • Finalists are Announced
    April 1, 2014
  • Winner is Announced
    April 29, 2014

The United States and the world are facing a great divide: simply put, the skill-sets of the current and upcoming workforce do not match employers’ needs and demands. This has left employers scrambling to attract a shrinking pool of qualified talent. At the same time, under-skilled workers now face increased competition for the diminishing pool of jobs for which they are qualified.  This talent mismatch has left nearly half of recent college graduates either unemployed or underemployed, to say nothing of the daunting barriers that young people with less education face in finding quality jobs.

As technology and societal forces continue to drive faster and faster change, the skillset required to thrive in the 21st century becomes more centered on the ability to innovate, adapt, lead, start initiatives, influence and create change – what we call “changemaker skills.”  Thriving today and in the future will be less reliant upon specific knowledge areas, which constantly evolve, and in many cases face obsolescence.  What does this mean for educators and employers?

The American Dream Competition is designed to answer this very question.  We believe that we as a society must entirely rethink how young people become skilled and start their careers.  Developed in partnership with Accenture, the Competition is looking for innovative and tangible solutions focused on developing career-ready talent to make it possible for our nation’s young people to attain their American Dream.

Submit your cutting-edge, proven approach to helping young people develop the skills they need to be successful in a 21st century workforce and to access meaningful, quality careers.

Ashoka will award over $100,000 in a combination of financial support and capacity building consulting from Ashoka’s strategic partners to six of the most innovative and effective programs in the area of workforce development.  The winning innovations will also have the opportunity to join a Talent Growth Initiative led by Accenture and Ashoka, which will bring together leading companies that seek new sources of talent and are invested in working with such workforce innovations.  The Talent Growth Initiative will also be a platform for spreading the top solutions in order to influence workforce development policy and programs everywhere.

The winning initiatives must be innovations that already have shown success in developing career-ready talent and in delivering quality job placement.  The innovations should be ready to scale nationally or internationally.  Please visit the Guidelines & Criteria page for more information on how to enter.

Enter your initiative today!


  1. The Competition is open to all organizations and partnerships that are providing young people with the skills and career opportunities to succeed in the 21st century economy.  Entrants can be based outside the U.S. but must have direct impact in at least one U.S. city.
  2. Solutions should reflect the theme of the challenge – the American Dream Competition – supporting activities that help young people develop changemaker skills: entrepreneurship, teamwork, leadership, problem-solving and empathy skills, which allow workers to adapt and thrive in a workplace and economy that are defined by change.  Specifically, solutions would address questions pertaining to:  What are the barriers to access, attainment, and/or retention of employment opportunities and how can they be circumvented? How can innovative localized solutions to successful talent attainment be scaled and replicated nationally?  How do we reframe the way that today’s talent is developed to more effectively meet the realities and demands of the 21st century workplace?
  3. Entries must be in English.
  4. Preference will be given to solutions that have grown beyond the conceptual stage; demonstrated impact and sustainability; and placed unemployed / under-employed young people into careers/jobs. 


  1. Grand Prizes: (a) Three prizes each of $35,000 total in cash and pro bono consulting support to support the proposed innovation’s capacity to scale ($5,000 cash prize and $30,000 in pro bono consulting; (b) opportunities to present the innovation to some of the world’s largest employers; c) profiles of the winning innovation in participating media platforms.
  2. Runner-Up Prizes: Three prizes each of $3,000.
  3. Don’t Delay!  Early Entry Prize: a ticket valued at $800 to the annual Ashoka U Exchange, a three-day, action-packed conference that brings together 650 social entrepreneurs, corporations, and partners from 150 colleges and universities from 40 countries to re-imagine the role of universities as drivers of global social change.  (To be eligible, you must submit your entry prior to the 5 p.m. EST January 31st, 2014 early entry prize deadline.)  

Why You Should Enter

  1. Shape the future of your communities by putting forth your voice and ideas. This is your opportunity to demonstrate your potential, as well as help the young people reach their highest potential.
  2. Connect with Ashoka’s global online community of innovators and problem-solvers. Your participation in the Competition gives you the opportunity to forge relationships with like-minded innovators, impact partners, sector experts, and investors online.
  3. Gain visibility with potential investors offering a high likelihood of significant investment for capacity building.
  4. Engage with some of the largest employers in the world and forge potential win-win partnerships. 

How to Enter

  1. For advice about how to create a better entry and boost your chances of winning, read these tips about how to make your entry stand out.
  2. Please complete the entry form (accessible from the Competition homepage) and publish it by the deadline: 5 p.m. EST on March 13th, 2014. Only those entries that are published by 5 p.m. EST on January 31st, 2014 will be eligible for the Early Entry Prize as well.

If you experience any difficulties in entering the Competition please contact [email protected] for for support.

Winners of the American Dream Competition will be those that best meet the following criteria:

  • Innovation: The best entries will demonstrate a creative approach to the challenge they tackle and the solution they propose. This innovation may comprise new products or practices, or new applications or hybrid combinations of existing tools. The initiative does not have to involve inventing something entirely new, but entries should describe how they are driven by original, ground-breaking ideas. Entries should clearly contribute to developing in young people 21st century – or “changemaker” – skills:  empathy, problem solving, entrepreneurship, leadership, teamwork, adaptability, and the ability to master change. 
  • Social Impact: Entries must describe what impact their solutions have helping young people develop changemaker and other key skills and access quality internships and/or jobs.  Entries must also describe how the solution measures impact through both quantitative and qualitative data. Entries must have grown beyond the conceptual stage to having a track record of results. The ideas must be poised to scale and have already demonstrated effectiveness in at least two implementation sites. The best solutions will have demonstrated impact in developing critical skills in young workers and in meeting employers’ hiring needs, as well as the potential for scaling-up and replication, either on their own or in combination with other solutions. Entries are encouraged to describe an important contribution to systemic change.  This can be either on their own or in combination with other solutions.
  • Sustainability: Entries should have a clear plan for reaching long-term goals with a sound business model.  They should describe not only how they currently finance their work, but also how they plan to finance it in the future. They should also have a realistic time frame for implementation. The most successful entrants demonstrate that they have strong partnerships and support networks to address ongoing needs, and to aid in scalability and the maintenance of a viable business model. Viability of the business model is greatly enhanced by having developed, or a strong chance of developing, earned income through a social enterprise model that minimizes the initiative’s reliance on contributed revenue and/or grant funding over time. 

Competition entries

Title Contributor Location
America Needs You Maya Fegan New York, United States
Venture for America Amy Nelson Detroit, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Providence, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Baltimore, Philadelphia, United States
ScriptEd, Inc. Maurya Couvares New York, United States