Department of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis declared in a blogpost last week that the country had “turned the corner on youth unemployment.” Her assertion came on the heels of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ annual report on youth employment which showed an increase in the number of employed youth aged 16- to 24-year-olds both from the previous quarter (2.1 million more youth were employed than in April of 2012) and from last year’s second quarter numbers (employment for 16- to 24-year-olds only rose 1.7 million over the same period in 2011). While more employed young people is undoubtedly good news, this assertion by Secretary Solis fails to take into account the full gravity of the employment issues facing youth.
For starters, the July 2012 unemployment rate for youth was still an abysmal 17.1 percent (the rate for all workers is 8.2 percent). Additionally, the unemployment rate tells us just one part of the story. It only accounts for youth actually in the labor force (those who are working or who are actively seeking employment opportunities), and only 60.5 percent of all youth aged 16-24 were “in” the labor force this summer. This is troubling for two reasons; first that is a full 17 percentage points down from youth labor force participation’s peak in 1989. More importantly, it means there are still hundreds of thousands of discouraged young people who are not bothering to seek out employment at all because they know their chances of finding a job are so low. For young people engaged in other activities like summer school, enrichment classes or even unpaid work experiences, the situation may not be catastrophic. However, for many discouraged workers, particularly low-income youth, this lack of connection to the labor force may well depress their earning potential and employment trajectories for the rest of their lives.
Secondly, this declaration of success is overly focused on summer employment. Summer jobs, despite their ability to provide an introduction to the world of work and a much needed paycheck, are not a panacea to the nation’s youth unemployment woes. Gaining work experience is certainly an essential part of a young person’s development; however, short-term employment experiences have been shown to have many more benefits (increased graduation rates and higher post-secondary enrollment) to young people particularly when they build off of what an individual does with the rest of his/her year. For instance, summer jobs where students can apply the skills and knowledge they have gained during the school year (in either high school or college) and explore career fields they are interested in based on previous coursework will do more to aide in future decisions than simply working in an entry-level job. That is not to say that there are not important skills and behaviors to be learned through all forms of employment, just that certain types of summer experiences can give young people far more than just a paycheck. This is especially important for low-income teenagers, who often lack exposure to different career fields and links to the labor market, and who are at an especially high risk for not graduating high school.
Furthermore, while students often relish the opportunity to have a job that starts and stops with their academic schedule, the same is not true for young people who are not connected to educational opportunities. Out-of-school 16-to 24-year-olds benefit little from employment that only lasts a few months. Certainly, a paycheck for three months is favorable to no paycheck at all, but out-of-school youth require self-sustaining wages that are more consistent than seasonal paychecks. This is true for everyone from college graduates to high-school dropouts.
Youth across the board are fairing terribly in the job market, and this will affect them for years to come. The outlook is especially bleak for the 6.4 million “disconnected” youth who are not connected to education or the workforce. College educated young people are faring better than their non-college educated peers, but they are graduating with mountains of student loan debt and likely limited work experience if they have graduated within the last few years. The SummerJobs+ initiative was a good start to getting young people connected to the world of work, but the nation needs to strategically invest in larger and longer term interventions if we want our population of 16- to 24-year-olds to learn new skills, gain work experience and ultimately expand their presence and success in the labor market. A slight uptick in the number of youth employed in the summer is cause for celebration, but declaring that we have “turned a corner” is premature.