Job opportunities for teenagers have dwindled to a record low, according to a new study, with only 26 percent of all young Americans ages 16 to 19 working in 2011, compared to 45 percent in 2000. The picture is almost as grim for young adults. Employment among those ages 20 to 24 dropped from 72 percent in 2000 to 61 percent in 2011.
The study by the Brookings Institution traces the root of the problem to the recession, when many Americans of all ages lost their jobs and were forced to take lower-paying jobs of the kind that used to be seen as "entry-level" work for first-time job seekers.
At the same time, older workers felt the economic pinch, and kept working at an unprecedented rate. The employment rate for workers aged 55 to 64 actually increased, and the increase was even greater for those ages 65 to 74.
Of course, not all teenagers or young adults want or need a job. However, the study attempts to count only those who are actively looking for work, part-time or full-time, and those who would be looking if they thought there was any chance of succeeding.
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One thing is clear from the study: With so few jobs available for young people, there's only one way for young would-be workers to stack the decks in their favor: Get a high school diploma and go on to get a college degree or vocational training.
The prospects are bleak for high school dropouts, and they're not much more promising for those with only a high school degree, even though these are the candidates most likely to want and need a steady paycheck.
Only about half of high school graduates who are not planning to go on to higher education had jobs in 2011. And fewer than 30 percent of high school dropouts were working.
A college degree, specialized training or community college credits appear to be the best way for a young person to stand out from the crowd.
Lasting effects a concern
The biggest concern noted by the study's authors is the lasting effects of joblessness at a young age. Young people who demonstrate the ability to get and keep a job tend to have a lifelong advantage in the workforce.
Though shocking, the numbers on employment for teenagers hide even worse statistics for minority teens. Wide racial disparities in employment were found, with non-Hispanic whites far more likely to get hired than any ethnic minorities.
Numbers for the nation's top 100 metropolitan areas show that California teenagers have been hardest hit. Six of the 10 worst job markets for teens were in California. The Los Angeles region was rock bottom, with just 16.9 percent of teenagers employed.
The more favorable regions for jobs for teens were clustered in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain States. Three regions topped 40 percent in teenage employment, including Ogden-Clearfield, UT, Omaha-Council Bluffs, NE-IA, and Des Moines-West Des Moines, IA.
The study suggests a need to expand and duplicate the kind of programs, public, private or non-profit, that provide "on-ramps" to the world of work. These might include apprenticeship, internship and mentoring programs, career counseling and job skills development courses.