To say the job market has been tough on adults would be an understatement. But it’s been even tougher on teenagers.
The nationwide teenage unemployment rate — the percentage of teenagers who wanted a job but could not find one — was 25.7 percent in June, the highest in a decade, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And while teenage unemployment rates aren’t available for the state or county, local experts say the rates likely would reflect the national numbers.
“I would expect it to be fairly close to the national average in terms of the (teen) unemployment rate,” said Scott Bailey, Southwest Washington regional economist for the state Employment Security Department.
The high teenage jobless rate is due to a confluence of factors, experts say, including general impacts of a lingering economic recession and changes in certain industry hiring practices. At the same time, federal data show that fewer teenagers are seeking work. It’s a situation that has some political leaders calling for more support for programs that help teenagers prepare for careers.
Lance Nerton, who graduated from Battle Ground High School in June, benefited from one federal program focused on developing math, science, engineering and technology skills. Before he graduated, Nerton, 18, completed an internship with Tom Harris, owner of Harris Metal Fab & Welding in Battle Ground.
“It was a lot of work,” Nerton said, “but in the long run it gave me so much experience that I would never have gotten from school.”
Nerton is the exception, however. And the economic recession has made it more difficult for teenagers to find a job. In June, Clark County’s unemployment rate was 12.4 percent, one of the highest jobless rates in the state. The state’s overall jobless rate was better but still relatively high at 8.9 percent. Bailey said there’s no doubt the teenage jobless rate is “higher than the average for all ages” in Clark County and in Washington.
The recession isn’t the only factor. Employers, particularly restaurant owners and retailers, often choose not to hire teenagers because they can hire adults in their 20s who don’t need as much training.
“In many cases, employers have a choice between a teenager and someone older who has more experience and more education,” Bailey said, “especially as wages have stagnated in the U.S.”
Meanwhile, teenagers increasingly have decided against having a job. In 1981, the national labor force participation rate for teenagers ages 16 to 19 was 55.4 percent, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last year, the rate was 37.5 percent. Bailey said no one knows for certain why the participation rate has dropped so steadily.
It could be that teenagers, realizing college has become so competitive, have decided to forgo summer jobs and stick to their studies. Or they may be deciding they’d rather spend their summer having fun rather than flipping burgers.
“There are a number of hypotheses, but no clear conclusions” as to why fewer teenagers are participating in the labor market, Bailey said.
What is clear is that leaders in work force development are pressing to maintain programs that help teenagers find work. For example, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., continues to press for $1 billion to maintain a national youth summer jobs program this year. Last year, the program employed more than 5,000 teenagers in Washington state, including 696 in Southwest Washington.
Lance Nerton was recruited by Manlio Castillo, a science, technology, engineering and math coach, as part of a $2 million federal program launched in January 2009 and managed through the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council. Nerton worked for Harris, owner of Harris Metal Fab & Welding, from April to May, racking up 90 hours and receiving a $500 stipend.
Nerton, a tinkerer and would-be welder since middle school when he and his dad built a go-cart together, hopes to own his own gas engine repair and metal fabrication shop someday. He plans to include his favorite hobby as part of the business: metal art.
Nerton said a lot of kids he knows aren’t interested in getting a summer job. It would just be another problem they would have to deal with, he said.
But Nerton is focused on success. And he knows what he wants. If you want something, he figures, “You’ve got to go out and work for it.”