WASHINGTON — For the fourth consecutive summer, teen employment has stayed anchored around record lows, prompting experts to fear that a generation of youth is likely to be economically stunted with lower earnings and opportunities in years ahead.
In 1999, slightly more than 52 percent of teens 16 to 19 worked a summer job. By this year, that number had plunged to about 32.25 percent over June and July. It means that slightly more than 3 in 10 teens actually worked a summer job, out of roughly 16.8 million U.S. teens.
“We have never had anything this low in our lives. This is a Great Depression for teens, and no time in history have we encountered anything like that,” said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. “That’s why it’s such an important story.”
The numbers in Washington mirror the national data and echo the national problem.
Paul Turek, state labor economist with the Employment Security Department, said Thursday, “There’s no easy answer for this. It’s an area that’s being explored intensely from a number of different angles.”
Turek noted that the employment rate in Washington in 2012 for males 16-19 years old was 21.4 percent; and for females 16-19 years old, 28.8 percent.
In 2008, 32.8 percent of males in that age group were employed, and 32.7 percent of females also in that age group had jobs. Compare those numbers with 2000, when fully 47.1 percent of males and 48.1 percent of females were employed.
“There are a lot of factors that go into it,” Turek said. “You may get a decline in both females and males being employed in that time because there are other opportunities they may take. It could be that industriousness as a value is not as important as it may have been in the past. The structural composition of jobs has been changing from a manufacturing base to a service base, and at the same time those service jobs are putting a higher emphasis on education. Those who can go on to higher degrees and stay in school are usually going to be more employable and less affected by the economy. This could be a sign that young people are spending more time on education.”
“These youngsters are going to have to delay their progress in life,” said Linda Nguyen, CEO of the Tacoma-based employment center WorkForce Central. “Not having a job, they don’t know how to work.”
In Pierce County in 2000, the unemployment rate for all youth 16 to 19 years old stood at 9.5 percent, according to Marta Gronlund, communications director at WorkForce Central.
By 2005 the rate had risen to 32 percent, and rose again to 36 percent in 2011.
For young people 20 to 24 years old, the data showed a similar increase, going from 8 percent in 2000 to 24 percent in 2011.
“I believe it’s a critical issue,” Nguyen said. “We’re still recovering. There are still adults out there looking and who are underemployed, taking jobs that the youngsters would have had. What’s happened in the past isn’t happening now. We’ve got a huge generation that has been pushed out of the market. The 16-year-olds, to just learn how to work, how to show up on time, they’re not getting those jobs. Some of them are going to give up. Who knows where they will end up? Their earning potential will be reduced. It is a problem.”
Nguyen noted that Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland this year began a summer youth program. With $150,000, the program “got 50 kids into summer employment. These kids got high school credits, plus they got the skills and the money. Her plan is to have hundreds more in subsequent years,” Nguyen said.
The picture these teen employment statistics provide looks even worse when viewed through the complex prism of race. Sum and colleagues did just that on a national level, comparing June and July 2000 and the same two months of 2013. In 2000, 61.28 percent of white teens 16 to 19 held a job, a number that fell to 39.25 percent this summer. For African-Americans, a number that was dismal in 2000, 33.91 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds holding a job, fell to a staggering low of 19.25 percent this June and July.
It wasn’t terribly better for Hispanics, who saw the percentage of employed teens fall from 40.31 percent in the two-month period of 2000 to 26.7 percent in June and July 2013.
The teen employment numbers are calculated from the Current Population Surveys, carried out by the Census Bureau for the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. This survey of households is used in determining estimates for the size of the civilian workforce, the number of employed nationally and the unemployment rate.
Unemployment data are calculated in a different fashion, and while they tell a similar story of hardship for teens, they are not considered by researchers to be as accurate as the employment data because they underestimate the severity of the slow economy.
Most of this decline in youth in the workforce is thought to be the result of the severe economic crisis and its aftermath, with older workers taking the jobs of teens.
“People entering into the labor force in their 20s, it looks like more and more now they’re not going to have any work experience as teens. Labor force participation is as low as it’s ever been,” said Keith Hall, who served as commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2008 to 2012.
Hall points to a troubling trend within an already worrisome statistic. Because of the so-called Great Recession and the sluggish growth that’s followed, middle-age and older workers are not moving up the career ladder. The natural order of career progression has been stunted.
“I think that means that a lot of workers aren’t advancing through their careers,” he said. “Younger workers aren’t going to be progressing through their careers as they did before.”Staff writer C.R. Roberts contributed to this report.