For many teens, a desire to work but jobs hard to find

Thomas
Thomas Allen, a teen from north Minneapolis, wants to find a job so he can study business and culinary arts.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

At 18, Thomas Allen has a semester left in high school and little time to find the job he needs to save for college.

But it isn't for a lack of trying. Allen, of north Minneapolis, has applied for so many jobs the past two years that he's lost count.

"I applied to more than half the stores in the Mall of America [and] more than half the restaurants," Allen said.

In Minnesota, young people age 16 to 19 had an unemployment rate of 21.1 percent in 2010, far exceeding the state's overall unemployment rate of 7.3 percent.

Like a lot of teens, Allen wants to earn money for college. He plans to study business and culinary arts. He wants to cook.

"Last year I cooked for my mom's birthday, my birthday, my niece's birthday, my auntie's birthday, and on Thanksgiving," he said.

Allen's family will help cover tuition at culinary school, but the remaining costs are up to him. So he's still job hunting.

Dickinson
Tammy Dickinson, director of STEP-UP, an employment program for low- to middle-income Minneapolis youth, ages 14 to 21. The program places hundreds of teens in paid internships each summer.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

The recession hit teens like Allen disproportionately hard, said Steve Hine, the state's chief labor market analyst.

"Teens account for less than 4 percent of employment, but account for over 20 percent of the employment decline," Hine said.

Teens are most frequently employed in industries like leisure and hospitality, fast food and retail — areas that are most sensitive to economic downturns, Hine said. In the Great Recession, employment in those industries fell sharply.

As a result, in the past couple years, those ages 16 to 19 in Minnesota had an average unemployment rate of 21 percent. That was up from about 14 percent in 2007.

Hine said older, laid-off workers are taking many lower-skill and lower-wage jobs that teens would ordinarily get.

"In those areas like leisure and hospitality, we've started to see a rebound," he said. "But the share of workers that are teenagers in those areas has dropped off."

It might not seem like a big deal if teens can't find work, but it can affect Minnesota's future prosperity. In a knowledge-based economy, it's more important now than ever for teens to save money for college as tuition costs are soaring.

Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, said those early jobs can even play a decisive role for young people who don't go to college.

"If your ultimate educational attainment is a maximum of a high school degree, those early jobs, even as a teenager, really matter in terms of your lifetime earnings," Shierholz said. "They really matter for setting you up going forward. So for certain groups it can have a really profound effect."

Entry level jobs also help teens develop "soft skills" necessary for employment, such as how to dress and act in a workplace.

The experience piece is the most important, said Tammy Dickinson, director of STEP-UP, an employment program for low- to middle-income Minneapolis youth, ages 14 to 21. The program places hundreds of teens in paid internships each summer.

The internships help young people think about what they might want to do for careers and form important attachments to the world of work, Dickinson said.

Some teens in her program seek the paid internships to meet more basic needs.

"Fifteen to 20 percent of those interns are using it to help support their families and their family needs," Dickinson said. "The other interns are talking about saving money for school clothes, school supplies."

Hine, the labor market analyst, said job prospects for teens may start looking better this year.

"We are seeing improvement, across the board, in some of those areas where we might more likely see teens looking for jobs," he said.

Overall job growth could mean that older workers biding time in low-wage positions will move on and free up jobs for teenagers.

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