Generations of Americans have been able to get ahead by working hard, earning an education or learning a skill, taking risks and sticking it out even in the face of adversity. One of our nation’s greatest responsibilities is to ensure that this bargain remains available. But for too many young people today, the American Dream seems to be slipping away — and it poses a threat not only to their prospects for success and stability but also to our nation’s economy and competitiveness.

More than 6 million Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 are out of work and out of school and are at risk of being shut out of our economy. Those who get sucked into the opportunity gap are more likely to face a lifetime of struggles, including long-term joblessness, poverty, health problems, substance abuse and incarceration.

Young people who slip through the cracks also miss out on opportunities to contribute to our nation’s economic strength and competitiveness. The Urban Alliance estimates that every young adult who drops out of the economy will cost the country more than $700,000 in his or her lifetime by failing to contribute to economic growth and pay taxes, as well as increasing government spending through aid programs.

This is clearly a challenge that we can’t afford to ignore.

The key to solving youth unemployment is to equip young Americans with the skills they need to compete in the modern workforce. There are, after all, 4.8 million jobs sitting vacant because employers can’t find qualified candidates. We need to build bridges between young Americans who want to work and employers who need to hire people.

The business community, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, is teaming up with nonprofit organizations to help build those bridges. It is working to highlight the value that young employees bring to the workplace, including fresh ideas, technological know-how and insights into emerging customer segments. It is helping employers develop strategies for recruiting, training and grooming young workers to contribute to a company’s long-term success. It is partnering with organizations to teach youth the soft skills, such as teamwork and communication, that are crucial to success. And it is leading efforts to address one of the fundamental drivers of the challenge — shortcomings in our public K–12 education system.

The foundation and its partners will shine a spotlight on the issue of youth unemployment at the National Opportunity Summit in Washington, D.C., this week. If we work together, we can give all young Americans the tools and the opportunity to participate in our economy, be productive members of society and pursue their dreams.

— Tom Donohue is president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The opinions expressed are his own.