WASHINGTON — Teens and young adults, short on experience and skills, have been giving up the job search at higher rates than other workers are during this great recession.
Frustrated by a lean job market, nearly 1.3 million workers ages 16 to 24 have left the labor force since the recession hit in December 2007. That's about 6 percent of them, and it's nearly three and a half times the exodus rate of workers ages 25 to 54.
With a jobless rate of 18.5 percent for 16- to 24-year-olds, some have gone back to school, some are volunteering, some are joining the military and some are just chilling at home until the economy heats up again.
It's anybody's guess when that will happen. Many experts predict that the economy will begin adding jobs this month, after employers cut only 18,000 jobs in February. Unfortunately, much of the new job growth is in temporary workers, while permanent hiring continues to lag.
Don't expect much relief from the summer hiring season, either. A new survey of hiring managers by the hourly-job Web site SnagAJob.com found that seasonal hiring will be at roughly the same depressed levels as it was last year for teens and college students.
"Given the year that we've had, 'unchanged' on the summer job front is pretty good news," said Shawn Boyer, the CEO of SnagAJob.com.
Not for young people who are trying to kick-start their careers, move out on their own or pay for school. They're being squeezed out of jobs in favor of older, more experienced workers, including those 55 and older.
In fact, the number of workers 55 and older has increased by 9 percent, or 2.5 million people, since the recession began.
"That's quite an astonishing rise," said economist Dean Baker, a co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a nonpartisan economic and social research center in Washington.
Some of these seasoned employees are returning to work because of job losses by spouses or the financial problems of other family members. Others are working longer to recoup retirement savings that were lost in the economic downturn.
Their increased presence and the scarcity of new jobs have made it hard for young people to find work. Twenty-nine percent of the hiring managers that SnagAJob surveyed said that older workers would be their younger colleagues' biggest competition for summer jobs.
As a result, only 55 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds are working or even looking for work, compared with 59.1 percent when the recession started. Baker said Congress should fund a national youth jobs program that was even larger than the summer youth jobs programs funded by the economic stimulus.
Tom Mroz, an economics professor at Clemson University in South Carolina, said his research had found that six months of unemployment for young workers would depress their earnings by about 2 percent over the course of 10 years. They'll also be more likely to be unemployed again.
With youth jobless rates approaching 40 percent in some areas, the unemployment situation for teens and young adults is at a crisis level, Baker said.
"I think it's incredible that this hasn't been talked about more seriously," Baker said. "We've got people coming out of school, and there's nothing there for them. What are they going to do, sit around and hang out in the street for two or three years, however long it takes for the economy to recover? Because no one thinks it's going to recover quickly."
Last year, applications for the Job Corps, a federal job-training program for low-income teens and young adults, jumped 8 percent as the recession deepened.
Kevin Epperson of Philadelphia and Amber Langlois of Waynesboro, Pa., enrolled at the Potomac Job Corps Center in Washington last year when they couldn't find work. After she graduated high school in 2005, Langlois, who's 23, bounced from job to job as a convenience store clerk, supermarket cashier and bank teller before she was fired from a book distribution factory for tardiness last March. She enrolled in Job Corps in June.
"I couldn't find any work whatsoever. It got to the point where I was just sitting at the house basically doing nothing and just feeding off other people. And that wasn't where I wanted to be."
Epperson, 24, has an associate degree in applied sciences. He's studying residential and commercial electrical wiring at Job Corps because he couldn't find work. "I got to the second interview on two jobs, but that's as far as it went," Epperson said of his employment searches.
He hopes to become an apprentice union electrician later this year. Within five years, he wants to earn his journeyman's license and work toward bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering.
Epperson said he was confident that the job market would pick up, so that he could work his way toward those goals. "There's always going to be a need for electricians," he said.
Langlois recently finished her business technical training at Job Corps and is working toward an associate's degree at a nearby community college under an arrangement that allows her to continue to live on the Job Corps campus. She's also confident that the employment situation will improve, but she remains skeptical nonetheless.
"My one friend, she graduated with a degree in graphic design and she's working at Dunkin' Donuts," Langlois said.
Ross Eisenbrey, the vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal policy-research group, said Congress should consider temporarily lowering the eligibility age for full Social Security retirement benefits by one year. Doing so for a period of two years would entice more people to retire — particularly those in physically demanding jobs — and open up more positions for young people, he reasoned.
"It's something we think ought to be explored," Eisenbrey said. "Freeing up jobs currently held by people that want to retire, but would be penalized if they did, would be of benefit to young people."
Baker's not so sure. He said that most people didn't have enough savings to retire and those who did so prematurely could end up in financial hardship in a few years.
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