Washington View: Poor economy hits young people hard

By Don Brunell, Columbian business commentator

Published:

 

We all know about the nation's weak economy and tough job market, but the prolonged recession is hitting high school and college students as well.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of high school students with jobs is at its lowest level in more than 20 years. In 1990, 32 percent of high school students held jobs, compared to 16 percent today.

The anemic economy is largely to blame.

According to the Washington Times, sectors that traditionally offer teens their first gig, such as fast-food chains, movie theaters, malls and retailers, have become the last resort for out-of-work college graduates or older Americans forced back into the job market.

University of Washington sociology professor Charles Hirschman told the Times, "When you can't find someone to bag your groceries or work construction, often teenagers are the labor force you can count on to pick up the slack for a low wage. But now, with the recession, everybody has moved down and these jobs aren't going to teenagers."

Traditionally, those part-time jobs were a right of passage, teaching young people critical work skills, such as showing up on time, dealing with customers and managing their own money -- in short, responsibility. Growing up in Montana, I had several part-time jobs, including delivering newspapers at age 12, working in the family garbage business at 15 and busing tables at 16.

But now those jobs are unavailable for millions of young people.

Today's fierce competition for the best four-year universities is also to blame. Prestigious universities are looking for well-rounded applicants with high grades and a lengthy roster of school activities. Meeting those standards leaves students little time for work.

The job crunch has also hit college students. NCES reports that in 2000, more than half of the full-time college students worked. That total has now fallen to 40 percent.

College students also face skyrocketing debt, as tuition at our major universities has increased by 14 percent each of the last two years and is projected to go higher as states struggle with a sluggish economy and shortfalls in tax collections.

Two out of three college students have student loans, and nationally, graduates owe a total of $1 trillion in unpaid student loans, averaging $23,000 per student.

CENGA generation

Historically, graduates could find good jobs to repay those loans, but that's no longer the case. Students walk out of college smack into a job market with 23 million Americans who are unemployed, underemployed or who have given up looking for work.

These graduates are often disillusioned, frustrated and losing hope. Pollster John Zogby calls them the CENGA generation: College Educated, Not Going Anywhere. They've lost faith in all of the traditional institutions including government, politics and the church.

The problem is the anemic recovery is not producing even close to the number of jobs necessary for people entering the workforce.

So what is the answer?

Our elected officials must remove barriers to expanding economic opportunity. It does no good to spend billions in federal money on training and retraining programs if the jobs don't exist. Officials must dismantle the regulatory barriers that discourage the creation of new businesses and stymie the growth of existing ones.

Finally, we must find ways to make higher education more affordable so graduating seniors are not saddled with massive debt. Solving these problems won't be easy, but it is essential if America is going to prosper and offer hope to the generations to come.

Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business, Washington state's chamber of commerce. Visit http://www.awb.org.