HOWARD SCHULTZ: Businesses must do more given the dysfunction in Washington

Starbucks (SBUX) executive chairman Howard Schultz isn’t waiting for the government to get its act together and pass reforms.

“I think it’s incumbent today given the polarization and some of the dysfunction in Washington and a lack of progress that businesses and business leaders do much more for the people they employ, [and] the communities they serve,” he told Yahoo Finance in a recent interview.

Currently, Schultz is among business leaders working to connect a huge segment of the population with their first jobs so they can access the “American dream.”

Unfortunately, the status of the American dream in the current environment is a “little blurry,” Schultz told Yahoo Finance in a recent interview.

“I think for the country to really succeed at the level that we all hope it will, opportunity has to be available to everyone, and we need to live in a more compassionate, more empathetic society,” he said. “And if we can restore that, I think the American dream will be alive and well and healthier than ever. I’m optimistic about the future of the country because I have great faith in the American people.”

Schultz, 64, stepped down as CEO of Starbucks in April and assumed the title of executive chairman. In this new role, Schultz is focusing his efforts toward the company’s social impact agenda.

Former Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz
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Former Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz
Starbucks Chairman and CEO Howard Schultz appears on the Fox Business Network's Opening Bell with Maria Bartiromo television program in New York City, November 6, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Segar (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS FOOD)
Howard Schultz, chief executive of Starbucks, poses for a portrait at his new Teavana store in New York, October 23, 2013. Starbucks Corp, which has doubled down on its tea bet, is opening its first Teavana tea bar in New York City this week, aiming to do for tea, the world's second most popular beverage after water, what it has done for coffee. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS FOOD)
Starbucks Corp Chief Executive Howard Schultz, pictured with images from the company's new "Race Together" project behind him, speaks during the company's annual shareholder's meeting in Seattle, Washington March 18, 2015. Schultz has deftly navigated thorny issues such as gay marriage, gun control and Congressional gridlock, but his move to weigh in on U.S. race relations has brewed up a social media backlash. The company kicked off the discussion when it published full-page ads in major U.S. newspapers earlier this week with the words "Shall We Overcome?" at center page and "RaceTogether" and the Starbucks logo near the bottom. REUTERS/David Ryder (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS)
Starbucks Chief Executive Howard Schultz speaks during the company's annual shareholder's meeting in Seattle, Washington March 18, 2015. Starbucks Corp will begin offering delivery in New York City and Seattle later this year, when it also plans to expand mobile order and pay services across the United States. REUTERS/David Ryder (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS)
Howard Schultz, Chairman and CEO of Starbucks, attends a dinner reception for Chinese President Xi Jinping in Seattle, Washington September 22, 2015. Xi landed in Seattle on Tuesday to kick off a week-long U.S. visit that will include meetings with U.S. business leaders, a black-tie state dinner at the White House hosted by President Barack Obama and an address at the United Nations. REUTERS/Jason Redmond
Howard Schultz CEO of Starbucks poses during an interview with Reuters in Shanghai April 19, 2012. Starbucks Corp wants to make its mainland China expansion a family affair. The world's biggest coffee chain is opening cafes in China at a rate of one every four days in its quest to expand from about 570 shops today to more than 1,500 by 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Barria (CHINA - Tags: BUSINESS COMMODITIES)
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz speaks to shareholders about the company's partnership with the Keurig single-serve coffee brewing machine, at the company's annual meeting of shareholders in Seattle, Washington March 23, 2011. REUTERS/Robert Sorbo (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS)
Starbucks Chief Executive Howard Schultz talks to shareholders at the Starbucks Annual Shareholders meeting at McCaw Hall in Seattle, Washington March 19, 2008. REUTERS/Marcus R. Donner (UNITED STATES)
Starbucks Chief Executive Howard Schultz speaks during an interview in Tokyo April 13, 2010. Starbucks plans to sell its Via brand instant coffee in grocery stores and other retail channels outside its own outlets in Japan in the future, Schultz said. To match interview STARBUCKS/JAPAN REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao (JAPAN - Tags: BUSINESS HEADSHOT)
Howard Schultz, the President of Starbucks Coffee Company takes a sip of coffee as he assists in the opening of his first coffee house in Paris, January 15, 2004. The coffee house is situated on Avenue de l'Opera at the heart of Paris' tourist district. REUTERS/Charles Platiau PP04010041 MAL/WS

Opportunity youth

Part of the company’s plan is to hire “opportunity youth,” young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not in school and not working. There are currently 4.9 million of these young people in the U.S. Many of them are minorities.

In 2015, Starbucks committed to hiring 10,000 of these young people as part of the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative, a coalition of companies dedicated to this cause. The coalition already surpassed its goal of hiring 100,000 by 2020 and is now pursuing a new goal of hiring 1 million by 2021. To date, Starbucks has employed 40,000 of them.

Schultz himself came from humble beginnings. He grew up in public housing in Brooklyn’s Canarsie neighborhood. In 1987, he purchased Starbucks, which at the time had a few stores, and grew it into the coffee behemoth it is today with more than 300,000 employees, known as “partners,” operating 25,000 stores in 75 countries. The company is well-known for its benefits package, which includes health insurance for both full-time and part-time employees, stock options, and college tuition.

There are a lot of job openings

At the moment, the overall unemployment rate in the U.S. is low at about 4.4%. However, there continue to be major gaps in other measures of the labor market.

“[There] are a lot of job openings across the country based on the fact that there aren’t workers who are skilled in those jobs that unfortunately are being vacant,” Schultz acknowledged.

In fact, the number of job openings is at a record high. And businesses often complain that they’re having trouble finding qualified workers.

“In this particular situation, we have almost five million kids who need a first opportunity,” Schultz said. “And if you think about America, the word that comes to mind is ‘opportunity’ is the aspiration, and I feel so strongly regardless of the color of your skin, most of these kids today that are here are African-American or Latino, regardless of your station in life, your sexual preference, your gender, that the opportunity should be there to create a first job for you.”

While there is certainly a gap between job skills and job openings, Schultz points to even bigger issues.

“[T]he more serious problem is we’ve got one of every six Americans that are food insecure at night. We have millions of Americans who are homeless, and we have five million kids, kids who are not at work and not in school.”

From Starbucks’ experience, Schultz said he’s learned that these young people are “fantastic workers.” He added that there’s a “flywheel effect” on the employment of these kids that’s seen in their self-esteem and their self-worth.

From his perspective, this is just the start. And so he challenges the business community to step up and bridge the gap as “polarization” and “dysfunction” keeps Washington stuck in political gridlock.

“I think we need to stand up and stand taller and get engaged in these problems in ways that perhaps generations ago we relied only on Washington to solve them,” he said. “We need to solve them.”

Watch the full Howard Schultz interview here >>

Listen to the Yahoo Finance Presents podcast on Apple podcasts, acast, Stitcher, and Google Play.

Julia La Roche is a finance reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter.

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