‘Get a Job’? Not So Easy for Teens, as Adults Snap Up Openings

Kari Lydersen

Teenagers work at the Taste of Chicago annual summer festival in 2009.

Teen employment rate of 26 percent is lowest since World War II — and much worse for African Americans

Even as the economy slowly picks up, finding a job is harder than ever for teenagers, according to a national study released on Tuesday. That’s likely because the jobs that are being created” in recent months are being snapped up by adults — often people over age 50 who were laid off from other positions or forced out of retirement during the economic crisis. Meanwhile, funding for youth jobs has suffered because of state and local budget crises, and significant stimulus” funding for youth jobs and training under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has now expired.

The study, by researcher Andrew Sum at the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston, looks at teen employment over time through jobless” numbers rather than unemployment” numbers, since unemployment figures don’t include youth who are not actively looking for work. As with adults, since it has become harder and harder to get a job many youth have given up and hence dropped from the unemployment figures.

A press release for the report says:

The teen employment rate declined by 19 percentage points, or more than 40%, nationally from 1999 – 2000 to 2011, falling to 26, the lowest rate since World War II… The figures are bleakest for African-American teens in the city of Chicago, of whom 90 percent are jobless, including 93 of every 100 teens from families with incomes under $40,000; upper-middle-income whites were nearly four times as likely to hold a job, the data show.

Ironically, the growing dearth of employment opportunities for youth — particularly low-income and minority youth — has come just as families most need that extra income, and as the experience the jobs provide is more important than ever for youth to get a leg up in an increasingly competitive labor market. Jack Wuest, executive director of the Alternative Schools Network in Chicago, told me:

If you’re an employer and have a choice between a 56-year-old man or woman who’s worked a lot, you’re probably going to take the adult; you might not want a surly teenager.’

Wuest added that even before the economic crisis, automation, downsizing, the increase in part-time and contract work and other factors in the larger labor market have either eliminated the jobs once filled by youth or funneled adults into them. As a kid, Wuest was one of an army of newsboys in Chicago’s far north side Rogers Park neighborhood, each delivering a separate paper on their specific routes. He told me:

Now one guy delivers all the newspapers – The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Chicago Sun-Times – across the whole neighborhood…It’s another example of an adult taking a job that would’ve employed four or five kids back in the 1950s or 1960s.

Also in tighter economic times, companies are less willing and able to invest in future workers by hiring teens for the summer. This trend probably especially hurts in terms of professional jobs that offer more specific training and opportunity to advance than the fast food and other service-sector jobs that youth are most likely to get.

Congress has introduced legislation, namely the Pathways Back to Work Act sponsored by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D‑Conn.) and U.S. Rep. George Miller (D‑Calif.), that would provide significant funding for youth employment and job training. But passing the bill will be an uphill battle, given Republican opposition and the distractions of the election year.

A press release from the Alternative Schools Network and partners explains:

The proposed Pathways Back to Work Act would create a $5 billion fund that provides $2 billion for subsidized employment programs for unemployed, low-income adults, $1.5 billion for summer and year-round employment opportunities for low-income youth, and $1.5 billion for a competitive grant program for work-based training and education programs for both adults and youth.

At an event in Chicago Tuesday, teens described the frustrating process of applying for job after job with little luck, often being told they will get a call back, but that call never comes. One bright note was provided by Deshon Carr, an 18-year-old senior at Community Christian Alternative Academy in Chicago who started a landscaping and snow removal business that employs other teens, working full-time in the summer and on weekends and over holiday break during the school year.

Carr, who is also enrolled in a culinary arts program at the Washburne Culinary Institute at Kennedy King city college, is proud he is able to create jobs for other teens in his North Lawndale neighborhood on Chicago’s west side. In the course of looking for jobs himself several years ago, he would call landscaping and construction companies and seek out mentors, ultimately leading to his own business, called Top of the Line Landscaping Inc.

If you can’t find a job, make a job,” he told me. If you want something bad enough you won’t give up on it, you just have to keep striving. I want to be a leader in bringing jobs to my community.”

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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