The Young and the Jobless 

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

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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.

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