By Richard S. Davis
In the rockabilly classic, Summertime Blues, the tormented teen raises a holler about working all summer just to try to earn a dollar. His boss has him working late, he’s got to make money to use the car, and he feels so put upon he wants to take his problem to the United Nations.
By today’s standards, he was a lucky guy. He had a job. Back in the late Fifties, when Eddie Cochran released the song, many teenagers did. In the last decade, the share of employed youth has fallen dramatically and it continues to drop. Nationally, the youth unemployment rate for those aged 16 to 19 years old is about 22 percent. In Washington, that number has approached 30 percent, well above the U.S. average.
It doesn’t get much better when we extend the picture a few years. A May report by the Brookings Institution reports an unemployment rate for 16 to 24 year olds of 14.5 percent. Analyst Elisabeth Jacobs writes, “Youth unemployment is one of the most serious economic and social problems facing the United States today.”
The liberal Center for American Progress (CAP) wrote last year that the slide has been decades long, even when labor participation rates for workers in the prime 25-54 age group showed stable or improving employment. For young workers, they write, the employment decline “cannot be attributed solely to a worsening economy.”
A number of factors contribute to high youth unemployment. They can be grouped into two categories: cultural and policy.
A generation ago, after-school and summer work was common and encouraged. Retailers hired students to help out during the holidays. Restaurants hired teenaged bussers and servers. Gas stations provided another job opportunity. It was not unusual to see grade school kids delivering the morning paper and making weekly collections. Several factories in my hometown hired recent high school graduates for the summer allowing us to earn money for college.
Today, many of those jobs have disappeared or are now filled by adults. Parents are more apt to discourage their children from part-time work, focusing them more on academics, organized sports, and volunteer activities that may eventually bolster college applications. Jobs, once seen as complementary to school, increasingly are viewed as distractions.
On a parallel track, public policies have made it more difficult for employers to hire unskilled young employees. The minimum wage is the most visible deterrent. Most economic research finds that raising the statutory base wage reduces opportunity for the least skilled workers. Maybe a family friend can be coaxed into hiring Lucas or Samantha for the summer, but absent connections most youth will find themselves priced out of the market. Washington’s high statewide minimum wage clearly contributes to the state’s high teen unemployment.
In addition, federal and state labor regulations restrict the age, hours and conditions under which young people can be employed. Some of these regulations make sense, but they do make it harder for teens to enter the workforce.
Youth unemployment has significant long-term consequences. In meeting with business owners around the state recently, I heard many comments about the lack of so-called “soft skills” among young adults. Those after-school and summer jobs taught some essentials: Showing up on time every day, taking direction, communicating effectively, treating customers and coworkers with respect, and keeping the workplace clean, organized. A 2013 survey of 500 executives conducted by the personnel firm Adecco Staffing US asked about gaps in workplace skills. It found that 44 percent of respondents cite soft skills as the most critical shortfall.
Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, tells Bloomberg, “Work experience complements skill and the combination of the two is more valuable than either one alone.”
For the young, six-months of unemployment has been found to depress lifetime earnings and delay career development. Society also suffers when eager and ambitious youths are sidelined and discouraged.
Reducing youth unemployment will require both a change in attitude and a rethinking of public policies. But it could pay significant dividends. We’ve moved a long way in the wrong direction when the summertime blues now refers to joblessness and a lack of opportunity for our young people.
Richard S. Davis is president of the Washington Research Council. Email firstname.lastname@example.org