Amid dismal jobs outlook for young, some areas shine bright

Unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds is stuck at 16.3 percent. But good jobs are there if you know where to look – and get beyond outdated career stereotypes.

Andrew Burton/Reuters/File
Sarah Azad, a senior at New York City College of Technology, waited to meet potential employers at a job fair in New York City last year. Despite a stubbornly high unemployment rate for young people, graduates' optimism about finding a job is improving.

At the back of a huge manufacturing exposition here, past the booths of machine tools, industrial robots, and biotech products, dozens of students from technical high schools and vocational colleges are listening to speakers and presenting their projects, such as how to improve propeller blades and streamline assembly lines.

They're being groomed for careers in the manufacturing sector – and recruited by companies increasingly desperate to find skilled workers. One lecturer presents a slide of a 3-D printer's replica of Lady Gaga's shoe as a selling point for luring more women into manufacturing.

"Six hundred job openings are there for the taking," says Bart Aslin, head of the education arm of the Society of Manu­facturing Engineers, in a telephone interview. (The SME holds this massive Eastern states expo, every other year.) "Companies are moving [back] into cities, hiring hundreds of people. But the pool of talent is limited. We're trying to increase it."

Despite the dire employment prospects for young people overall – an unemployment rate that's twice the national average and has shown no improvement more than a year, some sectors of the economy are practically begging for workers. Manufacturers and other employers are having a tough time attracting new skilled workers. The shortages aren't limited to engineering and other careers that require advanced math and science training. Nursing, sales, and other positions are also opening up as the economy improves and baby boomers who put off retirement when the stock market tanked are finally leaving the workforce.

"Some areas that went south during the recession are really coming back strong," says Roberto Angulo, founder and chief executive of AfterCollege, a jobs listing and career placement aid website for recent college graduates. His site has seen a huge increase in postings for entry-level jobs in sales, information technology, and health care, for instance. Another fertile yet overlooked area, especially for the more verbal set, is customer service and human resources, he adds. "Employers always need people to fill those openings. English and marketing [majors] are good for those roles."

Another plus for young job seekers: Some 76 million baby boomers who delayed retirement and continued working when the economy was in free fall are set to leave in greater numbers, encouraged by positive indicators like the recent upswing in the stock market.

"During the downturn, nurses, who are typically female, stayed in the workforce – or those who preferred working part time had to work full time – because spouses lost jobs," Mr. Angulo says. "As the economy improves, [hiring] will pick back up."

That is not to say that finding a job is easy for young people. In May, the unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds stood at 16.4 percent, more than double the 7.6 percent for the labor force overall, and actually up slightly from a year ago, the Department of Labor reported Friday. Youth unemployment has not improved since the beginning of last year. 

Nevertheless, young people's optimism is building. Less than half (45 percent) of people starting out said that they had a "very difficult time" searching for a job or paid internship, according to a recent survey of 1,005 upperclassmen and recent college graduates by AfterCollege and Millennial Branding, a research firm focusing on Millennials. That's down from 85 percent in 2010.

The trick to finding a good job is knowing where to look.

Some of the careers with the most openings have an image problem. Sales jobs, for example, don't have cachet. Some careers (customer service, for one) simply aren't on a young person's radar, Angulo says. Others, like manufacturing, don't conjure up favorable images with the younger set.

"A lot has to do with the image of manufacturing and its past role in our society," says Jeannine Kunz, SME's director of professional development. "A dark, dirty, dangerous lingo got attached to it, and some of us have a certain perception from our parents and grand-parents. But it isn't what it used to be, and we have to change its perception in the minds of youth."

She points out that most of the low-skill labor jobs that conjure up those dusty images are long gone, replaced by machines or shipped overseas, and that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

"But we need to keep the high-skill jobs here," she adds. The sector's biggest gaps are in skilled production jobs – advanced machinery operation, craft work like welding, and repair and maintenance – that need two-year degrees.

"Companies can't keep up with their customers' pace," Ms. Kunz says. "[They're] turning down orders, not opening up new plants even though the market demand is there. They can't grow as fast as they would like to."

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