Outside editorial: Wanted: Jobs for the next gen

The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune:

When the United States was in recession three decades ago, middle-age industrial workers were the biggest losers. The most recent recession and hesitant recovery, though, has hammered the young, as the government’s disappointing monthly employment report showed again last week.

For many of America’s younger workers, opportunity is scarce and financial independence is a dream. The labor market’s recent upswing has barely kept pace with population growth. The young continue to suffer substantially larger income losses than other age groups. Those who are ages 16 to 29 are less likely to be employed than at any time since World War II.

The outlook is worrisome. Long stretches of unemployment early in a young person’s work life can undermine future earnings, productivity and career prospects. Debt-strapped Europe is turning into Exhibit A of this phenomenon: In Spain, half of young adults have no job. In Italy, the figure is 30 percent. In Portugal, where youth unemployment runs 28 percent, young professionals are fleeing to Brazil and former Portuguese colonies in Africa.

The jobless rate for young workers in the U.S. typically runs above the rate for those in the prime working ages of 25 to 64. But the latest recession brought about the highest rate of unemployment ever recorded for 16- to 24-year-olds. At the end of 2011, their jobless rate stood at 16.3 percent, almost double the rate overall.

So far this year, youth have made no real progress: For those 16 to 19 years old, the unemployment rate rose to 25 percent in March, up from 23.8 percent in February and 23.2 percent in January. For 20- to 24-year-olds, it stood at 13.2 percent, down from 13.8 percent in February and 13.3 percent in January.

Why is unemployment so much worse for youth than for Americans at large? (The nation’s jobless rate is 8.2 percent.) There are a few reasons.

This was a severe recession, especially for the low-paying retail and hospitality industries, which typically employ the young. Factor in the effects of automation, and the financial imperative for employers to keep their workforces lean, and it’s no wonder the supply of unskilled and low-skilled jobs dried up.

At the same time, older adults were competing more than usual for those retail clerk and bartending positions. The economic downturn wiped out home equity at the same time jobs became scarce. Retirement plans were upended. Many Americans took whatever work they could find, and labor participation rates for the old went higher even as those for the young declined. Gramps wasn’t making room for Junior.

Perhaps the worst part of the youth employment picture is the state of education and job training. While the nation’s college-educated youth face a tough labor market and alarming levels of student debt, the unemployment rate for those without degrees runs far higher. Those with the least education consistently fare the worst.

The problem isn’t so much sheepskins as skills: Plenty of Americans make a good living without having graduated from college, but only if they can do something of value — whether it’s fitting pipes or operating computer programs. It’s painful to hear small-business owners lament the lack of readiness they see among young job candidates.

The U.S. can’t afford to do nothing while the chips fall disproportionately on this vulnerable part of its population. From a policy standpoint, the state of affairs argues for smarter investments in education and job training. One promising approach: Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plans to retool City Colleges of Chicago so each campus focuses on a job sector and works closely with employers in that sector. The Aspen Institute has encouraged similar efforts to tailor education to identifiable job demands at community colleges around the country. Too many young people jump in and out of two-year and four-year college programs without gaining a degree or a marketable skill.

One ray of hope: Younger Americans in the aftermath of recessions tend to be unemployed for shorter durations than those displaced from the working world later in life. The high unemployment rate for youth reflects less of the grinding, long-term unemployment that has led older Americans to despair of ever working again.

With fewer mortgages and family obligations, the young tend to be more mobile across occupation and region, willing to move for the sake of an opportunity or a chance at schooling. Incentives to encourage mobility among young workers would make sense.

For the sake of a generation at risk, let’s hope job creation shifts into high gear. Another spring slowdown that takes the air out of the economy would be hard to bear. Junior needs a recovery, pronto.

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