Job market tough on the young

As unemployment soars for workers in their early 20's, an entire generation struggles to compete

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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A slow economic recovery is under way in the U.S., as employers enlarge their payrolls and the unemployment rate inches down.

For young job seekers, however, the numbers tell a different story.

While the federal unemployment rate is 8.2 percent, unemployment for 20- to 24-year-olds is 13.2 percent. In Washington state, the unemployment rate is 8.2 percent. By contrast, the jobless rate for 16- to 24-year-olds was 21 percent in 2011. That’s up from 11.8 percent in 2007.

While there are no equivalent unemployment data for counties, it’s likely that Clark County’s job market mirrors the statewide figures, according to Scott Bailey, regional economist for the Washington State Employment Security Department.

What is known about Clark County is that the number of jobs held by high school-age workers plummeted by 40 percent from the first quarter of 2009 to the first quarter of 2011, Bailey said. For those ages 19 to 21, the number of jobs in Clark County dipped by 11 percent in the same period.

The situation for young job seekers in Oregon is similar. The unemployment rate was 19 percent for 16- to 24-year-olds in 2011. That’s more than double the overall jobless rate, and it’s up from about 11 percent in 2007.

The numbers underscore the tough spot that an entire generation of young workers find themselves in: They face an economy marked by lower pay and fewer job prospects, experts say, and rising pressure to attend college to have a shot in an economy that increasingly favors the highly skilled.

More seekers than jobs

The long-term weak economy has favored employers with a wealth of qualified candidates, and has caused the most pain for the newest entrants to the workforce.

Employers usually lower wages when there’s an oversupply of job applicants. What’s more, they’re able to be choosy, hiring the most experienced job candidates while eschewing younger ones, according to Dave Wallace, senior economist for the state Employment Security Department.

“That’s where (younger workers) really lose out,” Wallace said.

And older workers are staying in their jobs longer and putting off retirement, according to Guy Tauer, a regional economist for the Oregon Employment Department.

College grads in demand

Before the recession, younger workers filled a lot of Clark County’s production and construction jobs, Bailey said. Those low-skilled, entry-level positions were the first to be vaporized by the nation’s economic spiral.

In fact, some experts say a fundamental shift in the economy is well under way, where the U.S. labor market is increasingly open to only those who possess a college education.

In 2011, Jon Roberts, principal of Austin, Texas-based TIP Strategies, who oversaw development of a new economic development plan for Clark County, publicly urged regional leaders to boost Washington State University Vancouver’s role in creating economic growth.

He cited data showing that the jobless burden in the U.S. is shared unevenly. People who lack a high school diploma are experiencing a jobless rate of 13.7 percent, while 7.4 percent of those with college degrees are unemployed.

“Any region that isn’t committed to higher education and higher education training is likely to suffer significantly high unemployment,” Roberts told a gathering of more than 300 people at The Heathman Lodge in Vancouver.

David Autor, professor of economics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Bloomberg.com that the U.S. workplace is polarizing between the education haves and have-nots.

And more jobs -- even if they’re blue-collar jobs such as auto repair — will require some kind of college or postsecondary training, Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “The only thing more expensive than going to college is not going. Kids are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.”

Employers say they will hire 10.2 percent more new college graduates in 2011-12 than they did in 2010-11, according to a survey released in March by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

That’s a slight increase over employers’ initial projection — 9.5 percent — “and marks the second consecutive year in which employers have adjusted their hiring expectations upward,” the survey said.

That’s “encouraging data” for new or soon-to-be college graduates, including those at WSUV, said Christine Lundeen, the branch campus’ career counselor.

Lundeen said she began her job about 3 years ago, when the economy was in a tailspin. Since then, she said she has noticed an increase in the number of employers showing interest in WSUV students.

“It’s definitely been encouraging,” she said. “Every year, I have more and more employers contacting me to post jobs and internships.”

No guarantees

However, as the national survey shows, a college degree hardly guarantees landing a job. Competition is high: About 32 new college graduates are expected to apply for every job posting during the 2011-12 recruiting year, according to the survey. That’s up from 21.1 applicants for every job posting during the 2010-11 recruiting year.

And that’s all the more reason for college students to get aggressive about reaching potential employers rather than just passively searching online, Lundeen said.

In fact, she said, campus leaders are encouraging students to get some experience, via internships and other programs, in the fields they’re pursuing while they’re still in college.

College departments are teaming with community organizations and business leaders to bring real world issues into classrooms, Lundeen said.

Students are taking the initiative, too, she said. One WSUV student group focused on accounting, business and finance recently secured a visit to campus by two potential employers: the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bonneville Power Administration.

In an economy that still has weak spots, Lundeen said she’s noticed students becoming increasingly aware that a college degree, while an important key to unlocking the labor market, isn’t necessarily a sure lock on a job.

“There’s definitely been an increase in the use of services,” she said of the career and networking advice her office provides. “The word’s getting out; it’s a tough market, and you need to be developing the best résumé, thinking about job-searching strategies and networking.”

Lundeen added, “The campus as a whole is really pushing to get students experienced in their field before they leave.”

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ;http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com. The Associated Press, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Bloomberg.com contributed to this story.