Summer jobs for young people remain scarce

By MICHAEL HOLTZ | May 21, 2012

From January to June 2012, I reported for Political Fiber, a news website founded by one of my college journalism professors and funded by the Knight Foundation. Our mission was to cover relevant state and national news for a college-age audience from our newsroom at the University of Kansas. The site shut down in 2013, which is why I posted this story here.

Youth summer employment appears likely to remain at an all-time low this year as young people scramble to find temporary jobs in a still unsteady economy.

A recent analysis by a team of economists at Northeastern University estimates that 27 percent of 16- to 190-year-olds will have a summer job this year. Their prediction is a mere 1.3 percentage points higher than last summer’s actual employment rate.

The researchers’ gloomy forecast is compounded by recent declines in youth employment. In March and April, one quarter of teenagers were out of work, the highest unemployment rate in more than a year.

Once a hallmark of American adolescence, summer jobs quickly vanished in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Summer unemployment for 16 to 24 year olds has almost doubled since before the recession, from 10.8 percent in 2007 to 18.1 percent last July.

Andrew Sum, a professor of labor economics at Northeastern University, said the downward trend was worrisome for both young people and the overall economy. Without work experience, he said, many young people would be unable to develop the skills needed for future careers.

“There are strong payoffs from having good, solid work experience,” Sum said. “We’re hurting our future by not putting kids to work.”

As for the economy, a report commissioned by the White House found that taxpayers shouldered $93.7 billion in direct costs and lost tax revenue to support young adults disconnected from school and work in 2011.

If youth employment rates hadn’t changed since 2000, an additional 6.24 million 16 to 24 year olds would have been employed last summer, according to report Sum published last August. The Great Recession contributed most to the recent decline, sparking an influx of out-of-work adults who laid claim to temporary jobs historically filled by young people.

As a result, the share of 16 to 24 year olds who were employed last July — typically the peak month of youth employment — was 48.8 percent. It was the lowest July rate on record going back to 1948,according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

With 48.3 percent of 16 and 19 year olds employed last summer, Kansas ranked seventh highest in teenage employment. South Dakota ranked first with 63.2 percent employment while Florida ranked last with 19.6 percent.

How to increase youth summer employment remains a challenge policymakers in Washington are struggling to resolve. Federal stimulus dollars directed to cities and applied to summer jobs programs ran out in 2009. Congress never renewed the funding.

President Obama proposed a $1.5 billion jobs program last September that included summer work opportunities for low-income youth to make up for the lost stimulus dollars. But Congress has so far failed to act on Obama’s proposal, which he included in his $447 billion jobs bill.

More recently, the White House promised 110,000 new summer employment opportunities for 16 to 24 year olds in an appeal to young voters. The announcement followed Obama’s three-state tour of college campuses last month during which he called on Congress to extend low interest rates on student loans.

“There’s no replacement for the dignity that comes with earning your first paycheck,” said Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis in a statement.

The jobs pledge is part of Summer Jobs+, an initiative the White House launched in January to help young people find summer work. The 110,000 new jobs, internships and mentorships bring the total number of positions offered through the program to 290,000.

Two federal agencies, three cities — San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia — and 95 companies have committed themselves to the initiative. Young people can access employment opportunities through the Summer Jobs+ Bank, an online search tool launched last month.

For Jane Oates, assistant labor secretary for employment and training, summer jobs provide more than just a paycheck — they provide valuable experience for the country’s future workforce. That’s why she’s hopes Congress will help fund future youth employment programs. At a cost of $1 billion, more than 372,000 young people gained summer jobs under Obama’s stimulus package in 2009 and 2010.

“We know that with a little infusion of federal cash, we could really expand the reach,” she said.