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Teens ‘struggling to survive’ a historically tough job market

By Diane Stafford, McClatchy Newspapers –

Here’s a message for recent high school graduates: Finding a good job has likely never been harder. Especially if you’re trying to start a full-time career.

New numbers show that employment of 18- and 19-year-olds is at historic lows.

Ten years ago, half of all young people that age had a job, regardless of the time of year. This year, just slightly more than one in three is working.

The unemployment rate in May for those older teens who wanted a job was a whopping 23.5 percent.

Such a high teen jobless rate is a huge driver of the nation’s overall unemployment rate. The jobless rate of workers 20 and older in May was 7.6 percent. But adding in all the unemployed teens boosts it to 8.2 percent.

Single mom Britney Monasmith doesn’t need the statistics to tell her a job search in this economy is hard. Throughout her late teen years she bounced from job to job, never getting enough hours or enough pay to make a decent living.

Now in her early 20s, she’s finally landed in a Certified Nursing Assistant training program through the Full Employment Council because she lost her last job after it was outsourced to a foreign country.

“I’d been looking for work since January,” said the young Raytown, Mo., woman. “It seemed like a lot of employers didn’t even want to look at me.”

Several recent reports reveal that a dearth of teen employment opportunity isn’t simply a problem of summer jobs disappearing for the young. Dwindling employment among older teens is a year-round, long-term trend for many reasons:

—College enrollment has been ratcheting higher, from under 45 percent of recent high school graduates in 1989 to about 60 percent last year.

—Competition for entry-level work is tougher. College graduates and long-term unemployed adults are winning jobs that previously went to high school graduates.

—The skill level required for many entry jobs, notably in manufacturing and many of the trades, is higher than it once was, effectively cutting the least-skilled out of the market.

—Lack of transportation keeps many would-be applicants from filling open jobs, especially if the job hunter lives in the central city and the job is in a suburban office park.

—Corporate cost-cutting, a recession that has crimped many businesses and a mandated wage floor of $7.25 an hour has limited some job creation.

—More adults now work as temporary or contract workers, able to help as needed, reducing the need for teen hiring.

—Government funding for many youth job programs has dried up.

For 18-year-old Christon Kennedy, the Army at this point looks like his best career option. The Independence teen has applied at “too many to count” restaurants and stores within walking distance of his home — he doesn’t have a car — with no luck.

“When you play sports all the way through high school and don’t have any work experience, it’s quite hard,” Kennedy said of his job hunt. “I’d like a job around people. But I’m also thinking of heating and air conditioning trade school if not the Army.”

A survey released this week by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University found that teen workers’ problems don’t end by landing a job.

The report said 90 percent of recent high school graduates are paid hourly, at an average wage of $9.25 — and that’s for the only three in 10 who had full-time work. Average pay sank lower for most teens, who worked only part time.

“Most who were unable to attend college or who dropped out either say they could not afford it or they had to work to support themselves and their family,” the report said.

Most of the high school graduates who aren’t attending college “have been left out of the workforce or even job training and frankly are struggling to survive,” said the report’s co-author Carl Van Horn.

At the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, center director Andrew Sum projects that this summer will be among the worst for teen employment since 1948, when the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began measuring it.

The worst? The summers of 2010 and 2011.

But teens who have dropped out of high school or ended their education after graduation may lack reliable transportation, academic skills or maybe even a strong work ethic or role models in the workplace.

“We’re just not getting many calls from those teens,” said Curby Hughes, owner of Curby’s Lawn & Garden in Gardner. “In the school districts around here, 85 percent, 95 percent of the high school graduates go on to college. When we’ve advertised for help, the calls we get are mostly from teens without transportation to get out here.”

So jobs that might be a match for first-time workers often go unfilled by those who could most benefit from them.

Academic studies over the years, including this week’s Heldrich report, emphasize the transience of the teen working population. Post-high school teens tend to cycle in and out of jobs and school at a fast clip.

Kansas City resident Marcella Mitchell had one internship right out of high school, a customer service job in the city’s 311 action center, through the Bright Futures training program. But after that ended she didn’t land another position until she began doing child care at age 20.

“I’m working with job counselors in a remediation program to improve my test scores” for job readiness programs, Mitchell said. “My goal is to become an LPN in the health and medical field.”

Unfortunately for Mitchell and thousands of others like her, the high cost of continuing education, the difficulty of juggling work, study and family life, and the low-income earning power of most entry jobs conspire to keep the unemployment cycle turning.

The Heldrich researchers said many young people want to break the cycle in order to improve their lifetime career and income chances but it’s hard to find a way clear to manage it.

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