Pictured is a couple students walking under the covering the quad area at Ygnacio Valley High School in Concord Calif. on Tuesday Oct. 4, 2011 in Concord
Pictured is a couple students walking under the covering the quad area at Ygnacio Valley High School in Concord Calif. on Tuesday Oct. 4, 2011 in Concord Calif. The school has a health science academy that places students in internships at John Muir Medical Center, a Careers in Education academy that offers students the chance to volunteer as teachers' assistants in elementary school classroom. (Dan Rosenstrauch

Most of us remember our first job. Whether it was a paper route or flipping burgers or waiting tables, that job earned us money and, more importantly, taught us plenty.

At a minimum, it offered us a sense of what is expected in the working world. Things such as attendance, punctuality, time management, making ends meet and customer service were no longer abstract concepts but real expectations. It was at once life instruction and a rite of passage.

But a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation brings troubling news that fewer and fewer young people are able to meaningfully engage in that rite. It seems that our unsettled times have forced more experienced workers to compete for entry-level jobs, pushing the young people who had traditionally held such jobs to the bottom of hiring lists.

In short, our youth have become the roadkill on a pothole-ridden economic freeway.

As seems to be the case with most difficulties, the problem is particularly acute in California. The report, www.childrennow.org/kcteens2012, detailed that more than 850,000 people in California between ages 16 to 24 are neither in school nor working. What's worse, that number is growing, nationwide it is 6.5 million. In fact, youth employment is at its lowest level since World War II.

On the surface this might be dismissed as collateral damage in a flagging economy, but it is far more than that. It is a dangerous problem that needs -- no demands -- our collective attention.

One study calculates that youth who are both out of school and out of work cost taxpayers $1.56 trillion. Yes, that is trillion with a T. Hardly collateral damage.

Meanwhile, good-paying jobs being created inside this country increasingly require more skills with fewer applicants. The McKinsey Global Institute recently found that even in our stagnant economy 30 percent of American companies had unfilled positions open for more than six months. What's more, McKinsey predicts that on its current path the U.S. in 2020, which is not that far away, will be 1.5 million people short of what is needed to fill jobs that require a college degree while having about 6 million unemployed people who have not finished high school.

While that is a troubling prediction, it does not have to be that way. There is still time to make changes, but we must focus on the problem.

As detailed in this paper Tuesday in a news report by Theresa Harrington, Katy Murphy and Sharon Noguchi, there are a number of positive examples of school programs and community programs that operate in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

That is a good place to start, but this issue goes far beyond a few government-funded programs. While such programs can help, they are not nearly enough to attack such a large problem.

We agree with the Casey report's call for leadership on this issue. It must go far beyond government and most certainly must include all stakeholders -- young people, businesses, education experts, taxpayers and, yes, government.

It is not just a national conversation we should have, it is one we must have.