Unemployment rate falls, but teens get left behind

Unemployment rate plunged to 6.3 percent in April, but teen employment still lags behind pre-recession levels. Why the high teen unemployment rate? Fewer teens want to work, and the ones who do face increased competition from immigrants, retirement-age workers, and even college and high school graduates. 

Leah Hogsten/AP/File
Blake Lundell works at Graywhale CD in Salt Lake City in March. The US unemployment rate fell to 6.3 percent in April, but the rate for teens who want jobs is much higher, at 19.1 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

The US unemployment rate fell to 6.3 percent in April, and the economy added 288,000 jobs – its fastest rate of job creation in over two years. But one group has seen its employment prospects take a nose dive even as the rest of the job market makes steady improvements: teens and young adults.

Millions of the nation’s youngest workers will find it rough going when they set out to find summer and post-education jobs in the coming weeks. Employment of teens and young adults plunged during the recession and continues to slump as the rest of the labor market improves. Among those actively looking for work, the jobless rate for 16- to 19-year-olds was 19.1 percent in April, an improvement but still well short of pre-recession levels. 

Overall, 23.6 percent of teens (including those not looking for work) were employed in 2013, according to a recent report from the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

Part of the issue, experts say, is that as a weak economy recovers and begins adding back jobs, the youngest, most inexperienced workers are generally the lowest priority for employers. “Often, when you come out of a period of heavy unemployment, employers go back to other people first,” says John Challenger, the chief executive of Challenger, Gray, & Christmas, an outplacement consultancy firm based in Chicago. The company’s “Teen Summer Outlook” report predicts stagnant job growth for summer 2014.

He adds that numbers are slow to recover because teens are competing with many different groups for the retail and service industry positions that used to be mainly for young workers, including immigrants, retirement-age workers, and high school and college graduates who are coming in with more experience.

Teen labor participation has been falling since its 1970s peak, and employment for 16- to 19-year-olds dipped below 30 percent for the first time in 2009. The drop has been particularly steep in the past decade; between 2000 and 2011, the percentage of working teens plunged from 44 percent to 25 percent, according to the Brookings report.

That isn’t all bad news: The slide has corresponded with a rise in high school graduation and college enrollment levels, which means more young adults are simply entering the workforce later. Also, Mr. Challenger notes, more and more highs school students are opting out of the summer job market altogether in favor of volunteer work, extracurricular activities, academic programs, and other college application boosters.

But the trend is still worrying in both the long and short term, says Martha Ross, a Brookings Institution fellow based in Washington. “Even part-time employment for teens is important for a number or reasons,” she says. “They do need the money, sometimes, but more broadly it helps set them up for a more successful transition into the labor market. You get applied lessons that you aren’t going to get in school that you need as an independent person. It matters because of what it bodes for their future. If they’re working less it sets them up for lower earnings down the line. It’s a less promising trajectory.”

In particular, Brookings found that jobs were harder to come by for teens in poor households: Teens with household incomes below $20,000 annually had an employment rate nearly 10 percentage points lower than those with a household income above $65,000. That’s a huge concern, Ms. Ross notes, because “the implications are that success builds on success. If they can't get a good foothold in the labor market they will remain low income.”

The good news: city and state governments across the country have made finding jobs for teens and young adults a high priority. In Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh and the Private Industry Council have set a goal of finding 12,000 jobs for the city’s teens this summer; the mayor even spent time cold-calling local companies encouraging them to hire young workers.

Ross gives Boston’s efforts glowing reviews. “They have not only a lot of energy behind it, but the [PIC] is one of the best around in thinking about connecting young people with employment,” she says. “They recognize that it’s not just a one-time transaction in getting someone to hire a teen. You have to support them in succeeding and make sure that it’s a quality job experience. PIC follows up with the employers and makes sure that there is adequate supervision."

Another important element, she says, is strengthening the linkage between work and school without turning an academic environment into a vocational one. PIC places career counselors in Boston-area high schools schools, for example, allowing school guidance counselors to focus on more immediate needs like scheduling and college applications. In San Antonio, Alamo Area Academies partners high schools with community colleges to give students access to career or college-prep training and place them in paid internships during the summer.

Outside of such programs, Challenger says that teens can improve their chances of finding work by applying in person, and doing a bit of homework. “It’s good if you know something about the place you’re applying – store merchandise, maybe it’s a vet’s office you took your pet to as a kid, whatever it is,” he suggests. Go in and meet the manager and let them know that you’re hard-working, reliable, and you’ll fit right in. That way you’re not just a piece of paper to them.” 

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