March 14, 2014

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Teen Employment Rate Fell Dramatically in the Recession

By Heather Stewart

March 14, 2014


The Great Recession dealt a harsh blow to teens and young adults, according to a new report from the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. The employment rate for teens in Salt Lake plummeted—from 55 percent in 2000 to 39.3 percent in 2012—and these youth now face an uphill battle in their attempts to forge a livelihood and attain independence.

For adults, the employment rate seems to have rebounded. Brookings found that in Salt Lake in 2000, the employment rate for those over the age 25 was 68.6 percent. By 2012, that rate was 67.8 percent—a very minor drop compared to the 16 percent drop experienced by teens and a 5 percent drop in employment for young adults aged 20 to 24.

The picture is similar in the Ogden-Clearfield area. Teen employment there fell from 52.8 percent in 2000 to 33.5 percent in 2012. However, the Provo-Orem metro area actually experienced a small growth in teen employment, from 48 to 48.6 percent, while its young adult employment rate grew from 74 to 78.8 percent.

The long-term impact of falling teen and young adult employment could be slower economic growth, according to the report’s authors.

“Young people’s struggles to gain a foothold in the labor force are costing us economically, through a  smaller work force and disrupted career trajectories, leading to reduced earnings and spending, which in turn lead to slower economic growth and job creation,” said Martha Ross, fellow with the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program and co-author of the report.  

But for teens and young adults in Salt Lake and Ogden, reduced employment opportunities have an immediate impact.

The Milestone program through the Salt Lake County Division of Youth Services aims to help young adults, age 18 to 21, who are facing homelessness. Milestone is a transitional living program that provides a stable living situation for young adults as they work to become self-sufficient.

“When a young person comes to us, our first thing is, ‘Let’s work on getting a job,’” said Mina Koplin, Milestone program manager. Milestone staff help participants draft resumes, fill out applications, transport them to job interviews, and connect them with other resources and services in the community, said Koplin.

But the job situation has been grim. “One young man sent out 40 applications and only got one interview,” said Koplin. “It was a lot of legwork. And this is a kid who has that high school diploma, as well as a welding certificate.”

One problem is that young adults are now competing with older workers for low-paying jobs, she said. “I think you have a lot of adults who are going for those jobs at Little Caesar’s, McDonald’s, Wendy’s—and they’re getting them.”

Another issue is a lack of work history. Without any work experience, a job application looks awfully bare, said Koplin. It’s a vicious circle—no work experience makes it harder to get a job and build up that work experience.

“Youth employment is path-dependent, meaning that recent employment history is strongly associated with future employment. Reduced work experience as a young person can have a serious negative impact on future job prospects and earnings,” said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University and co-author of the report.   

Carrie Mayne, chief economist for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, said the employment participation rate for teens tracks with the overall employment trends, falling during the recession, then beginning to rebound in the past year or two. “But it fell a little deeper, perhaps, for teens.”

“It’s kind of the ‘last in, first out’ effect,” she said. “Businesses tend to shed the low-skill jobs. They hang onto their higher-skilled, more educated workers. … Those experienced workers can step in and do the low-skill tasks, in addition to their own jobs, but the inexperienced workers can’t do the work of the higher-skilled people.”

The Brookings report highlights the difficulties faced by “disconnected” youth—those who are not in school, not working and with less than an associate’s degree. In Salt Lake, 13 percent of young adults are disconnected; in Ogden, 17 percent are considered disconnected.

But Koplin begged employers not to overlook these young adults. “They have a work ethic,” she said. “They have energy, motivation. They want to be self-sufficient and to earn their own way.”

Mayne noted that Utah’s teen employment picture is a little bit more complex—and promising—than the Brookings report indicates.

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