Youth Unemployment Reached Record Highs: What Can Officials Do About It?

The number of out-of-work teens and twenty-somethings climbed to record levels during the recession. View data for each state.
by | April 29, 2013

With the last weeks of school winding down, millions of students will soon embark on a hunt for summer employment. But as the economy struggles to gain momentum, many will find landing a job difficult, failing to acquire skills and experience that could be crucial to their future careers.

Young people were the hardest hit group during the Great Recession, causing recent graduates to go back to school or accept low-wage part-time positions. The unemployment rate for those aged 16 to 24 soared to levels previously unseen, peaking at a record high of 19.6 percent in April 2010. As youth employment continues to lag far behind the rest of the nation in the recovery, some fear a generation of Americans is falling behind.

“There’s a real sense that this is pushing back life expectations and elements of the American dream,” said Rory O’Sullivan, policy director for Young Invincibles, a Washington, D.C.-based youth advocacy group.

With job opportunities scarce for everyone, young adults are finding that they have to compete with older, more experienced workers vying for positions previously held by mostly younger employees. While the chances of getting hired may be better in such areas as the retail or food service industry, some long-term unemployed youth simply aren’t interested in accepting such generally low-paying, low-skill jobs, O’Sullivan says. Meanwhile, young workers who are landing jobs are finding that they don’t have great job security, which has also contributed to the cohort’s high unemployment rate.

Entering the workforce is a particularly daunting task for youth lacking any professional experience. “Young people often have a lot of barriers getting connected to the labor force,” O’Sullivan said.

This challenge is most apparent in areas with low incomes and educational attainment.

Mississippi, which ranks near the bottom in both metrics, recorded an average 16-to-24 year-old jobless rate of 23 percent for 2012 – the nation’s highest rate. State Economist Darrin Webb attributes this to the weakened condition of the state’s economy, along with older workers filling up entry-level jobs. “The Mississippi economy did not get hit quite as hard as the rest of the country during the Great Recession, but our recovery has been much slower,” he said.

South Carolina (22.9 percent), Georgia (20.6 percent) and California (20.2 percent) recorded the next-highest average rates last year.

Here’s a table of annual average youth unemployment rates by state for 2012, the most recent  data available from the Labor Department:

The current national youth unemployment rate is 16.2 percent, more than double the national rate of 7.6 percent.

But the true extent of the problem is much worse than what’s portrayed by the unemployment rate, which only considers individuals holding jobs or actively looking for work. The annual employment-to-population ratio for 16-to-24 year-olds, comparing those employed to the total population, fell from an annual average of 53.1 percent in 2007 to 46 percent last year – a staggering 7.1 percent decline. By comparison, the employment-to-population ratio for those ages 25 to 54 also dipped over the five-year period, but only by 4.2 percent.

In response, some local governments have launched efforts to directly address the problem.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter is pushing a summer work program with a lofty goal: 10,000 youth jobs. Demand for summer jobs in the city, which had an unemployment rate of 10.5 percent in February, is huge. The public-private partnership linked 6,800 area youth to paid summer positions with local government and private employers last year, but more than 14,000 submitted applications.

Setting a high target this year helped to motivate employers, said Lori Shorr, Nutter’s chief education officer. This city and its nonprofit partner, the Philadelphia Youth Network, ramped up recruitment efforts, working across different city departments, airing radio ads and reaching out to their contractors to boost the number of available slots with area businesses. As of April, public and private employers had already committed to providing 7,500 jobs.

The program offers three options, each tailored to where youth are in their careers. The youngest students typically participate in service learning teams that address a community need; others wanting to work in specific sectors are placed in work experience programs; more advanced workers receive internships.

“They need some early experiences, particularly if they’ve grown up in economically isolated areas,” Shorr said.

The initiative further emphasizes skill development. Participants are expected to master a set of transferable skills, and 86 percent met that requirement last summer. The program also offers weekly professional development seminars.

“With the unemployment rate we have in the city, we need to be building the workforce of tomorrow today by giving them these experiences,” Shorr said.

It’s vital that young people make connections to the workplace in high school or in their first few years of secondary education, said Neil Bomberg, the National League of Cities’ Program Director for human development and public safety.

Although the youth unemployment rate inched down slightly over the past two years, it’s still between 5 and 6 percentage points above rates prior to the recession. Demos, a policy group promoting economic equality, published a report in April estimating the U.S. economy would need to add 2.2 million jobs for 18-to-24 year-olds for that age bracket’s employment to return to pre-recession levels.

The result has been a widening skills gap – older workers are developing skills while many young adults continue to put their careers on hold.

“If we don’t do something rapidly, we are just creating a generation of kids who have no connection to the workplace and will not be productive,” Bomberg said.

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