The Young and the Jobless 

Idaho youth struggle with one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation

Here's how these stories almost always go: So-and-So, 19, recently graduated from Such-and-Such High School with reasonably good grades and high aspirations. But So-and-So's family has fallen on hard times and he/she is deciding to work for a few years to save money for college. Trouble is, despite his/her good grades, he/she hasn't been able to find steady work and is striking out in the job market. It's the same for So-and-So, 24, who just graduated from Such-and-Such University but who has had to move home with mom and dad and work retail.

What follows is an extended amount of personal hand-wringing, culminating in a hopeful finale that, with hard work, things will get better.

That narrative might make for tidy newspaper copy, but it masks a painful reality: The kids aren't all right. Far from it.

The Screwed

They go by a lot of names: in Japan, they're called "freeters," a mash-up of the word "freelance" and the German word for worker, "arbeiter." The Spanish call them "mileuristas," or "those who earn less than a thousand euros" a month; in England they're the "NEETs," those "not in employment, education or training"; they're the "hittistes" in Tunisia, "those who lean against the wall"; and in Egypt, they get more to the point, calling them the "shabab atileen," or "unemployed youths."

Writing for the Daily Beast, Joel Kotkin, Chapman University urban futures scholar, throws a big net around the demographic, simply terming it "The Screwed Generation." And while Kotkin's phrase may sound flip, the Screwed feel it and aren't afraid to act on their frustrations. As Kotkin notes, the home countries of the mileuristas, the NEETs, the hittistes and the shabab atileen read like a where's-where of social unrest. But things aren't much better in the United States, where youth unemployment rates are similar to those in countries like France, England and Italy and the situation in Idaho is among the worst in the nation.

According to data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in February, Idaho had the sixth-highest teen unemployment rate in 2011: Among those 16-19 years of age 29.9 percent were out of work, a figure surpassed only by Washington state, with 30.4 percent; Nevada, 31.9 percent; North Carolina, 32 percent; Missouri, 32.7 percent; and California, with 35.2 percent.

Though the Idaho Department of Labor doesn't track unemployment by any demographic measure, officials with the department said they would trust the BLS figures.

"I'm guessing that would be more-or-less accurate," said Ben Phillips, a grants management officer for the Idaho Youth Corps, which works directly with youth to find them employment. "It's really hard for them. It's a new game, for lack of a better term."

For those who work with teens in the labor market, a high unemployment rate is nothing new, though the most-current numbers are strikingly high. According to best estimates, more than 50 percent of Idaho teens were employed at least part-time as recently as the late-1990s. But with the economic dislocation of the past decade, teens aren't just competing against each other for those so-called "starter" jobs in hospitality and retail--their resumes are going head-to-head with those of older and more-experienced workers who are trying to get by in the wake of layoffs or shortened hours.

"It causes a domino effect," said Kim Burnett, coordinator of the Qualified Worker Retraining Program at North Idaho College in Coeur d'Alene and a seven-year veteran of helping youth find work in Spokane, Wash. "The jobs teens were taking are now being taken by 30-year-olds, 40-year-olds. When you go to a fast-food restaurant, you're more likely to see an adult behind the counter. The youth end up at the bottom of the domino, and that sort of leaves them out."

The aging of low-wage employment affects more than teens, though, expanding to include college-age youth and recent college graduates alike.

According to the BLS, 15.3 percent of Idahoans 20-24 years of age were out of work in 2011, along with 9.6 percent of those 25-34 years of age. Combine those unemployment figures with the 29.9 percent of Idahoans not working in the 16-19 age group, and that's roughly 38,000 eligible workers age 16-34 who aren't working. Meanwhile, 18.1 percent of Idaho workers in the much wider range between 35 and 64 years of age are out of work, amounting to about 28,000 jobless workers.

What that adds up to is the fact that older workers are doing much better in Idaho than their younger counterparts, and while that may be good news for that age cohort--those most likely to have families and mortgages--it's contributing to a long-term skills deficit among younger workers that could spell trouble for Idaho's future economic recovery.

"I don't know if it's a lesser of two evils or not," Phillips said. "When an adult is working, they're focusing on putting food on their table, but in the long term, we're taking away that opportunity for the next working generation to really learn those employment skills."

Soft Skill Shortage

Burnett said she works mostly with adults at the NIC Qualified Worker Retraining Program, but when she was a youth employment specialist in Washington, the skills deficit was already showing itself among teens.

"What we would see is the kids either coming out of high school or dropping out of high school and just not having the foundation to find even a first job," she said. "We'd have placements of kids in the aerospace industry, and they'd come back saying they couldn't stand up all day. It's the whole new generation of not wanting to do hard, physical work. Everybody wants to be an athlete or design video games. 'Well, do you know anything about math?' 'No, I just want to design video games.'

"Some kids didn't even know how to read a tape measure," she added. "That's pretty much where we're at now."

Jan Roeser is a regional economist with the Department of Labor in South-Central Idaho. She agreed that with older workers snapping up most of the jobs typically taken by inexperienced workers, certain industries are starting to see major skill gaps that will only get worse as time goes by.

"There have been such a huge number of companies who have held off hiring. All of a sudden, everybody's going to need somebody all at once, and then we're going to have these big labor gaps," she said. "Employers are already coming to us saying, 'I can't find anybody to hire for this job.' A big gap here in south-central Idaho is specialty science positions at food processors, but certain jobs like those are less popular for kids even though they're more needed."

It's the same story in Southeastern Idaho.

"It's always a tight job market around here for a lot of youth because we have Idaho State University here in Pocatello," said Dan Cravens, Department of Labor regional economist. "Having a major university creates a large labor pool of young folks typically looking for part-time work, and when we talk about high-school students, they're competing with college students for those part-time jobs. That's normal, but right now, what we're seeing with the job market is a glut of qualified people--a lot of folks who ordinarily wouldn't take part-time jobs are taking them as a matter of necessity.

"It makes it tough on them because experience is so important," Cravens added. "We never want to underestimate the importance of those soft job skills: how to show up on time, how to work with others. Any employer, whether you're applying for a fast-food restaurant or a nuclear physics lab, is first going to look for whether you're a hard worker, you're diligent, you work well with others."

There are a number of programs available to young people who need those soft skills but can't find them with a traditional employer. The Idaho Youth Corps, which offers training and mentoring opportunities through the Workforce Investment Act, targets low-income youth and those with employment barriers ranging from lack of a high-school diploma to teen pregnancy or those who are teen parents.

Phillips said services include helping youth complete their education and placing them with some kind of work experience--even if it's an unpaid volunteer position.

"We tend to focus on public-sector employers: animal shelters, libraries, the Forest Service. It's really all about trying to get that young person their first work experience so they can develop those soft skills," he said, adding that about 300 kids are currently working as part of the program.

Other services are offered at the Department of Labor's offices around the state including help with job searches, resume writing and interview skills, but making an impact is challenging.

"Typically, because the younger set in our population is so technically savvy, they don't always grace us with their presence in our brick-and-mortar establishments," said Roeser. "Our biggest exposure to teenagers is typically when we go out and do presentations in the high schools."

Placing kids in public-sector jobs can also be difficult, Phillips added.

"Sometimes when we used to put kids in work experiences in a municipality, the employer would come back and say, 'We've just laid off 10 people because of budget cuts, how's it going to look if we hire your subsidized work force?'" he said. "It's a hard time to be in."

Kids These Days

For some, like Roeser and Burnett, who have school-age kids struggling to find jobs, one of the biggest problems with getting kids to work is cultural, and it starts at home.

"There is a lower work participation rate within the young civilian labor group than there ever has been, and I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that they really concentrate a lot more on school and activities than they ever have in the past," said Roeser, who has one daughter in high school and one who just graduated.

"As parents, we have pampered them more than ever before," she said. "You have to be able to balance a few plates in the air, but because so many kids can't, retail stores have really started saying we won't hire you if you're under 18, and that's kind of turned into a barrier for my daughter, who just graduated at 17. I think schoolwork and a job would be the preference."

Burnett said another challenge is simply getting youths to put in the time and effort to look for a job.

"When the job market's good, they can walk in and get a job. It's easy. When things are harder, they have to do some work, and youth have this thing where, 'That's not what I want to do, so it's better just not to have a job,'" she said. "I think kids are really resourceful--they don't feel the need to work necessarily. They can couch surf and hang out with friends and get by.

"Youths are a lot of time not as motivated, and it is really tough out there," Burnett added. "My daughter--who's 24, graduated from high school and has a couple semesters of college--has nothing against her and she's having a hard time getting a job. She finally asked the employers what's wrong, and they said, 'I'm getting 300 resumes and they all blur together.' It is really tough."

Roeser said, "It's a mind-set issue, and part of it comes from their parents. If their parents have been 'blue-collar,' and I don't know if we like to use that word anymore, they want to see their kids go to college. They don't want them to follow them in the blue-collar industries, but maybe those are the industries where we need workers. ... Maybe we're sending them the wrong message. Maybe we need to develop a stronger work ethic in our kids."

Eating the Young

While it might be tempting to cast aspersions on "kids these days," there are plenty of examples of Gen-Y and Millennial stick-to-itiveness. Take Sandpoint native Jessica Grantham. As a 2008 graduate of Eastern Washington University with a bachelor's degree in accounting and finance and a minor in economics, she was a year out of school and already facing the reality of being laid off from a staff accountant position. To make matters worse, she and her husband were expecting their first child.

"Needless to say, I was desperate to find something, anything," Grantham said.

What followed was the usual mad scramble.

"I started applying with every firm, every ad in the paper, Craigslist, Monster, Spokane Help Wanted, the Department of Labor--you name it, I was on it," she said. "I applied for any job as I was terrified that I would be left on unemployment, which you can't collect if you are on 'maternity leave,' and not able to pay for my student loans, house and a new baby."

During that time, Grantham landed 15 interviews but was turned away either because she was over- or under-qualified.

"At almost every interview, I was informed they had received a record number of applicants," she said. "I felt compelled to tell them I was expecting, though by law, they couldn't ask and I didn't have to say anything."

Grantham's search lasted nearly five months, including a period of soul searching in which she weighed whether to take a position outside her field or hold out for something she knew she'd excel at. Lucky for her, a staff accountant position opened up at North Idaho College and she was ultimately chosen for the job over 197 other applicants--a success made possible by her soft skills.

"In talking to my supervisors about it now, three years later, it all came down to fit," she said. "There were other applicants that had more experience and were more desirable on paper, but blew it when they came into the office for the interview. They ignored the staff members they felt would be 'beneath' their position or just couldn't manage the interview questions.

"I don't think that I did all that well in the interview either, but I guess I can't say enough about going in and being yourself in the interview and being respectful and friendly with everyone you come in contact with," she said.

While Grantham's gumption helped her navigate a potentially disastrous employment situation, there are solid figures to back up the feeling that the deck really is stacked against younger workers.

As the Baby Boomer generation has aged, it has adapted the marketplace--and the policies that govern it--to its needs.

That fact was starkly revealed in a Pew Research Center study released last November: median net worth (all assets minus all debts) of households headed by an adult 65 or older rose 42 percent from 1984 to 2009. During the same 25-year period, the median net worth of households headed by an adult younger than 35 fell 68 percent.

"As a result of these divergent trends, in 2009, the typical household headed by the older adult had $170,494 in net worth, compared with just $3,662 for the typical household headed by the younger adult," the study reported. "People generally accumulate wealth as they age, so it is not unusual to find large, age-based gaps on this measure. However, the current gap is unprecedented."

Referring to this vast transfer of wealth from the young to the old as the result of America's burgeoning "gerontocracy," journalist Stephen Marche marshaled a slew of grim facts and figures for an Esquire magazine piece titled "The War Against Youth," published in March.

Drawing on data culled from Pew, the Urban Institute, the Project on Student Debt, the Brookings Institution and various other urban studies and national education sources, Marche noted that shrinking earnings and a drought of jobs have driven one in four young Americans back to their parents' homes, while one in three have postponed marrying and one in five have delayed starting a family.

At the same time as average student loan debt has risen to more than $25,000 and public debt per American has risen to $33,777, the federal government now spends $2.40 on the elderly for every $1 it spends on a child.

Just as government policy has inexorably disinvested in youth over the past few decades, the wage structure for entry-level jobs has taken a nosedive. According to the Economic Policy Institute, entry-level pay for every group, regardless of education, fell dramatically from 2000 to 2011, with wages for high school-educated workers falling between 9 percent and 9.2 percent during the period.

The problem is so severe that Idaho is losing highly skilled, well-educated young people to other markets. Case in point: Arthur Benjamin, a native of Iron Mountain, Mich., who graduated with a psychology degree from the College of Idaho in 2007 and went on to work as a corporate recruiter in Hailey--that is, until he was laid off in August 2008. From there, it was a series of part-time jobs, including auto traffic counting and nude modeling, followed by a second bachelor's degree, this time from Boise State in economics.

One unpaid internship later (with a local commercial real estate brokerage), Benjamin graduated in 2009 but didn't land a job until March 2010 as a collector at CitiBank.

"So at that point, I have two degrees--one in a 'hard' discipline--and [I'm] making $22,000 a year, driving my parents' and my girlfriend's car because I can't afford a reliable one," he said.

Realizing that his situation wasn't tenable, Benjamin opted to skip the state altogether, enrolling in a full-time MBA program in Chicago, which he just finished (though he's now back on the job hunt).

"Employment is somewhat easier out of state," he said, adding that fellow C of I classmates have had similar experiences--notably, one friend who graduated cum laude in mathematics but found himself scraping by on $13 an hour. That 'Yote ended up pulling up stakes for Indiana and a master's in actuarial science. "The low wages are what make it rough," he said.

Besides economic pain, members of the Screwed Generation are also suffering emotional trauma: With employment opportunities drying up, debt increasing and wages falling, young Americans are increasingly questioning their futures.

According to a workforce trends report issued in June by the Rutgers University Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, 39 percent of those surveyed said they are no longer taking college classes full-time because they can't afford the cost. Meanwhile, 34 percent of respondents reported that they were not planning to attend college at all because of finances.

Eschewing college in favor of work was the most typically reported circumstance: 30 percent said they were no longer taking full-time courses because of the need to work while 37 percent said they would not attend college at all because of employment.

An overriding pessimism among youth has been the result of the current economic climate. According to the study, 61 percent of high-school students said they felt less prepared to work than the generation that came before them. Only 17 percent said they felt better prepared for the work place. Similarly, high-school and college grads alike are expecting to enjoy less long-term financial success than their parents, with 56 percent of high-school graduates and 61 percent of college graduates assuming they will be less well off.

As Marche writes in Esquire: "The situation is obviously unsustainable: At the exact moment when the United States and all other Western countries are trying to deal with aging populations, they are failing to capture the energy and potential of the people who will have to work to support those aging populations. We have arrived at a moment, just before the 2012 election, in which the hedges, the corner-cuts, the isolated decisions about young people from a host of institutions have accrued to the point of a continuous catastrophe. The question rises from the wreckage: How long can we eat the young?"

That's an open question among labor market experts in Idaho.

"With adults, a lot of times when you're going in to get a job, you have proof of how well you've done in the past; with youth it's, 'All I've got is me.' Employers at this point don't want to take a chance--they don't have to take a chance," said Burnett. "For employers, they're just doing what comes natural. ... I think it will correct itself, though. I think it just cycles and things change.

"I do think there's going to be some pent-up employment that needs to be filled, and then we're going to see unemployment just ratchet down a few degrees," Roeser said. "Whether that happens in 2012, 2013, 2014, I'm not sure. It's not all that dour, but it does seem that way."

"It's just a different scenario to be in," added Phillips. "We live in a time when education is still very important, but it doesn't carry the same assurances that it used to. It's hard to blame them for an environment they live in. It's just their reality."

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