Competitive work force overwhelms teens

The Miami HeraldSeptember 2, 2013 

Diana Delgado spent the summer looking for a job, trying fast-food restaurants, supermarkets and toy stores.

But the 15-year-old Miami student never cinched her first paycheck. She wanted the money to contribute to her family's expenses, because her mother is a single parent.

"She can't really pay for what we need, and what I wanted to do was help her," said Delgado.

For the fourth consecutive summer, teen employment is anchored around record lows.

The trend is all the more striking given that the overall unemployment rate has steadily dropped, to 7.4 percent in August. And employers in recent months have been collectively adding almost 200,000 new jobs a month.

But teens are being aced out of the work force by an uber-competitive jobs climate where experience counts.

In 1999, slightly more than 52 percent of teens 16 to 19 worked a summer job.Teen employment plunged to about 32.25 percent during June and July, whichmeans slightly more than three in 10 teens actually worked a summer job, out of roughly 16.8 million U.S. teens.

"We have never hadanything this low in our lives. This is a Great Depressionfor teens, and no time inhistory have we encountered anything like that," saidAndrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. "That's why it's such an important story."

Summer is traditionally the peak period of employment for teens as they are off from school and get their first taste of employment and the responsibilities that come with it. Falling teen employment, however, is just as striking in the 12-month numbers over the past decade.

Comparing June and July 2000 and the same two months of 2013, 61.28 percent of white teens 16 to 19 held a job, which fell to 39.25 percent this summer. For African-Americans, 33.91 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds holding a job held a job in 2000, which fell to a staggering low of 19.25 percent in June and July.

Hispanics saw the percentage of employed teens fall from 40.31 percent in the two-month period of 2000 to 26.7 percent in June and July 2013.

One of the more surprising findings of Sum's research is teens whose parents were wealthy were more likely to have a job than those whose parents had less income.

Some 46 percent of white male teens whose parents earned between $100,000 and $149,000 held a job this summer, compared with just 9.1 percent of black male teens whose family income was below $20,000 and 15.2 percent for Hispanic teen males with that same low family income.

That finding is important because research shows teens who work do better in a wide range of social and economic indicators. The plunging teen employment rate is likely to mean trouble for this generation of young workers of all races.

"Kids that get work experience when they are 17 or 18 end up graduating from college at a higher rate," said Michael Gritton, executive director of the Workforce Investment Board, which promotes job creation and teen employment in Louisville, Ky., and six surrounding counties.

"There are economic returns to those young people because they get a chance to work. Almost every person you ask remembers their first job because they started to learn things from the world of work that they can't learn in the classroom."

Nineteen-year-old Doris Gonzalez searched for a job all summer, and by mid-July she was hired at an Express store at Miami's International Mall.

"My advice for teens is to apply everywhere and hope you hear back from somewhere," said Gonzalez, of Kendall. "You have to be open minded."

Gonzalez also recommends first-time job seekers brand themselves as versatile.

"You may not have retail experience, but if you have volunteered at a camp then you have learned to deal with people, for example," she said.

The weak employment numbers sometimes prompt a mistaken narrative that younger workers are just staying in college longer rather than entering the work force, or are going on to graduate school given the impaired jobs market.

"I think there is thismyth out there that thereis some silver lining foryoung people, that theyare going on to college. . . . You don't see an increasein enrollment rates over and above the long-term trend.You can't see a Great Recession blip," said HeidiScheirholz, a labor economist at the liberal Economic Policy Institute, a research group.

"They are not in school. There's been a huge spike in the not-in-school, not employed. It's just a huge missed opportunity."

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