End of 'baby boom' should help ease youth job shortage

What is ahead in the 1980s for the inner-city teen-ager who today cannot find a job? Labor experts say that while the outlook is far from bright, there is at least one trend under way that could ease the problem. Just as the end of the "baby boom" has left some schools with fewer students, so the number of young people competing for jobs is expected to fall over the next decade.

"To a certain extent the problem will take care of itself," observes Dr. Michael Wachtel, professor of economics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. "Though the young will always have job problems because of their age, and the proportion of minorities will continue to grow, the total group will be smaller."

Some experts also say that the nationwide shift away from manufacturing jobs, long a major source of work for the young and unskilled, toward more service jobs may not have as adverse an impact as some have predicted. Indeed, Barry Chiswick, professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle , suggests that the change may tend to benefit young job seekers and women. They are already employed in disproportionately high numbers in the service sector of the economy.

Still, the present unemployment rate for inner-city teens is almost three times the national average. And some observers worry that it could shoot higher -- particularly in older Northern cities which have lost jobs to the South and West. Some even suggest that federal youth job efforts, while well meaning, actually have helped to trap low-income job seekers in a place where the prospects for meaningful or permanent employment are slim.

Wary employers say teen-age job seekers often not only lack job skills but also have not mastered basic reading, writing, and mathematics. Also, they say, many do not appreciate such work world values as getting to the job on time.

Thus the search for fresh answers continues strong.

Under the Reagan administration stronger federal support of private enterprise efforts to train and hire disadvantaged youth is considered likely. The President has warmly endorsed the concept of urban enterprise zones that would offer a mix of tax and other economic benefits to businesses starting up in distressed neighborhoods. But few expect him to substitute it wholly for the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), as his urban task force suggested last fall. It is generally expected that CETA will be revised and reduced rather than replaced.

Those who keep close watch on Washington say, too, that a stronger emphasis on the link between school and job skills and between training and actual job openings is likely under the new administration. More on- the-job training by private business is apt to be encouraged by cutting down on paper work and regulation and by offering at least temporary or partial wage subsidies. Other incentives for businesses, such as a lower minimum wage for young workers, tax credits, and even federal job vouchers are possibilities.

Yet some labor experts are skeptical that there will be much of a net impact for unemployed inner-city youth.

"Everything being discussed may have some effect, but in my judgment it would tend to be pretty minimal," observes Charles Killingsworth, a professor of economics and labor and industrial relations at Michigan State University.

Others like Tom Cochran, director of the Northeast-Midwest Institute, an independent "think tank" in Washington, are taking a wait-and-see attitude on the expected change in emphasis.

"It's not at all clear to me that the federal role in the cities will be cut back that heavily," he says. "I do think that tax policy is one of the great opportunity areas in terms of both jobs and economic growth. To most corporations the predictability of tax structure is a lot more important than a little up-front tax break."

A city's laws and the involvement of its leadership, experts say, also may profoundly affect the opportunities for disadvantaged young persons. City decisions on everything from zoning and tax policy to road construction and prompt availability of city services can make a big difference in whether new businesses start up within city limits.

CETA itself, the main federal instrument for providing the disadvantaged with jobs and training, has come in for ample criticism in its brief seven-year history. It has been accused of allowing fraud and waste, while those in the program too rarely find permanent jobs.

Many mayors -- like Cleveland's George Voinovich who has been working on his own local variation of the urban enterprise zone concept -- have said they would gladly trade the dollars spent on CETA jobs for long-term assurances of permanent jobs or for investment in private enterprise efforts.

Still, most of those concerned with unemployment problems agree that even "make work" jobs are preferable to straight welfare. And employers often say the added federal help often makes the difference between hiring and not hiring. Kenneth Richardson of the Baltimore Messenger and Delivery Service, for instance , says that the 50 percent federal subsidy he receives for providing on-the-job training to disadvantaged young people has helped his minority firm stay in business and has netted him at least one top-notch salesman he might not otherwise have hired.

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