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Much controversy surrounds the consequences of adolescent paid work, with researchers coming to diverse conclusions about whether work is good, work is bad, work doesn’t matter (the purported effects of employment are spurious, dependent on processes of selection), and work matters for some youth but not others, depending on their prior backgrounds and attributes and the contexts of their employment. This article summarizes findings from the Youth Development Study, a long-term, ongoing longitudinal study that has followed a community-based panel from middle adolescence through early adulthood. The findings address this debate and support the final perspective—that the effects of teen employment on the successful transition to adulthood depend on its patterning through the years of high school (most invested, steady, sporadic, and occasional employment patterns) and its quality. Moreover, the YDS shows that patterns of teenage employment are linked to the social origins and motivations of youth upon entry to high school, and suggest that teenagers exercise agency as they build human capital during high school through education and work experience. The article concludes with a discussion of what parents, counselors, and others can do to help children make sound employment-related decisions during adolescence so as to assure effective career exploration and a successful school-to-work transition.
Having a paying job at some time during high school has become a near-universal adolescent experience (Committee on the Health and Safety Implications of Child Labor, 1998;U.S. Department of Labor, 2000). Many youth start to work informally even earlier, at about the age of twelve, most often in their own neighborhoods, babysitting, shoveling snow, cutting grass, or doing various odd jobs. At first, paid work is episodic and generally quite limited. By the age of 16, adolescent workers are more likely to have formal jobs, working in the retail and service sectors of the economy, especially in fast food restaurants, grocery stores, or other retail stores. Employment becomes more regular and more time-consuming during the latter years of high school, with many teens working 20 or more hours per week.
The prevalence of teenage employment has sparked lively debates over whether adolescents should work, for how many hours, and in what kinds of jobs. Most parents like the idea of their children working, as they think that employment instills a whole array of positive traits, including independence, responsibility, interpersonal skills, and a good work ethic (Phillips & Sandstrom, 1990). Parents believe that the jobs that they themselves held during adolescence helped them to acquire these very same attributes. In fact, when asked in very general terms about whether the jobs they held in adolescence had any negative effects, only a small number had anything to report. Their adolescent children also want to work to earn their own spending money to be able to buy the accoutrements of adolescent life and take part in the often expensive leisure activities popular among their peers. While a minority of teenagers give their earnings directly to their parents, earnings from teens’ part-time jobs help many families economically insofar as adolescent children are able to purchase themselves items that their parents would otherwise provide. Teens buy clothes, food, gas, and music; some save a portion of their earnings for larger purchases or even to attend college (Shanahan, Elder, Burchinal, & Conger, 1996). Adolescents tend to report high levels of satisfaction with their jobs and hold many of the same beliefs as their parents about the benefits of employment.
On the other side of the debate, some educators complain that working teens put in too many hours on their jobs; they may come to school tired, have little time to see their teachers after school for special help, and avoid extracurricular activities (Bills, Helms & Ozcan, 1995). Some developmental psychologists echo these concerns and warn that employment may cut short, or even deny, youth an essential “adolescent moratorium,” a stage of life free from adult-like pursuits, stressors, and responsibilities (Greenberger & Steinberg, 1986; Steinberg & Dornbusch, 1991). They believe adolescence should be a time of exploration—a time to figure out who one is and what path one should follow. According to this point of view, too much work may have severe opportunity costs with respect to healthy identity formation.
This article will address the probable benefits, as well as some potential costs, of teenage employment. Initially, four plausible answers to the general question, “Is working good for teenagers?” are presented. Then it will highlight findings of the Youth Development Study, an ongoing longitudinal study, that bear directly on this question. Finally, implications of the findings that may be of interest to parents, educators, and others with interests in enhancing healthy youth development will be discussed.
Researchers across disciplines, including psychologists, sociologists, and economists, have been systematically studying adolescent employment for several decades. As Staff and his colleagues (2009) have noted based on their extensive review of the literature, four basic answers to the question, “Is working good for teenagers?” have emerged. The first is highly affirmative, largely in accord with what youth and their parents believe. Youth themselves think that employment helps them to develop a wide range of beneficial attributes, such as the capacity to take responsibility, develop time-management skills, overcome shyness with adults, and handle money. Furthermore, at least while they are in the work setting, employment makes them feel more like an adult. Employed teens have high rates of job satisfaction (Mortimer, 2003).
The second answer is negative, emphasizing that work carries with it many risks. Critics of adolescent work point out that teens who work long hours tend to have lower grades than teens who work fewer hours; there are similar gradients in a range of academically relevant indicators such as absences from school and dropping out. These critics also report that as hours of work increase, adolescents drink and smoke more, and engage in a wide range of problem behaviors (Steinberg & Cauffman, 1995; Steinberg & Dornbusch, 1991; Steinberg, Fegley, & Dornbusch, 1993).
A third position is that work makes very little difference with respect to healthy development; what pass for “benefits” as well as “costs” of employment are attributable to self-selection. Teens who enter adolescence with strong academic interests and goals may work very little during high school, and when they do have jobs, they limit their hours of employment so as to not jeopardize their grades. Those who choose to work long hours, in contrast, already engage in more problem behavior, are less interested in school, and get lower grades even at the start of high school (Staff et al., 2009). Thus, according to this perspective, problem behavior of adolescent workers is more a function of pre-existing differences than an outcome attributable to their employment.
A fourth answer to this perplexing question has also surfaced: employment has different consequences depending on both the characteristics of the adolescent and the circumstances under which it occurs (Lee & Staff, 2007). To fully understand the consequences of teenage work, we must address the degree of investment in employment and the particular experiences that youth have while working; that is, the quantity as well as the quality of work, as well as adolescents’ social backgrounds, academic promise, and motivations to work.
The Youth Development Study (YDS) was initiated more than 20 years ago in an attempt to address the controversies surrounding adolescent employment (Mortimer, 2003). Importantly, the YDS is a prospective study, enabling observation of teens’ time commitments to their jobs, numerous indicators of the quality of their work, and the adolescents’ own self-reports of their subjective experiences of working as they move through high school and into college or the work force. Surveys were initially obtained from 1,000 students, randomly chosen from a list of 9th graders (mostly 14 and 15 years old) attending the St. Paul, Minnesota Public Schools in the fall of 1987. Each spring during the four years of high school (1988–1991), the students filled out surveys containing large batteries of questions about their work experiences, including intrinsic and extrinsic rewards of work, stressors, relationships with supervisors and co-workers, job satisfaction, and commitment.
After the students left high school, the YDS continued to survey them near-annually by mail. Currently, the youth are in their mid-thirties, and approximately 75% of the original cohort has been retained in the most recent waves of data collection.
There are, of course, both disadvantages and advantages of long-term studies of this kind. The data describe the work experiences of teenagers more than twenty years ago. High school students are less likely to be employed today, especially in the midst of our current recession, and teenagers’ attitudes toward work may have changed as a result of their reduced job prospects. Still, if one is interested not only in immediate correlates and outcomes, but in long-term effects of teenage employment that may not be apparent until many years after high school, then data of this kind are essential. Because of the lengthening transition to adulthood, it takes a long time to ascertain whether early work experience actually influences eventual educational attainments and career establishment. We do have some information, nonetheless, that bears on the question of change over historical time. While the students were in high school, we also asked the students’ parents to complete questionnaires to obtain parents’ views about their own experiences of employment when they were teenagers and about their attitudes toward their children’s work. As noted above, there was general agreement across generations about the benefits of teen employment.
The YDS has enabled us to understand much about teenage employment, including its short-term consequences as well as its longer-term implications for educational attainment and career establishment. What have we learned from this prospective study?
We find clearly identifiable patterns of teen employment with distinct precursors and likely consequences (Mortimer, 2003). It is insufficient to know merely whether a teen is employed, or even how many hours that teenager works. Instead, it is more fruitful to understand how employment is patterned throughout high school with respect to two temporal dimensions: the duration and intensity of work (see Table 1). The “most invested” workers are employed in most months of observation (22 of 24, in fact, from the 10th through the 12th grades), and during this period they work on average more than 20 hours per week. “Sporadic” workers also put in a lot of hours when they are employed (more than 20), but they only work about half the months of observation. “Steady” workers, like the “most invested,” are employed most of the time during high school, but they moderate their hours, working on average 20 hours per week or less. “Occasional” workers are employed relatively few months (similar to the “sporadic” workers), but also limit their hours of work to 20 or fewer per week. Testimony to the ubiquity of adolescent work, only 7% of the panel did not hold any employment when school was in session. Because the debates about teenage employment largely concern the conflicts between work and school, this typology does not reflect summer employment.
The research further revealed that steady and occasional workers came from higher socioeconomic backgrounds and were more intrinsically motivated with respect to school in the 9th grade. They were more likely to enjoy school, to think they were learning things at school that would be important to them in later life, and to have high grades. They also had higher educational aspirations for the future. Not surprisingly, they limited their hours of work and were therefore able to participate in extracurricular activities, spend time with their families and friends, and engage in the highly valued “well-rounded” adolescent life style. When asked about why they obtained their first jobs, they were more likely than the other youth to say that they wanted to save money for college.
The most invested workers, in contrast, were distinctive in their interest in gaining work experience. Their parents tended to be less well-educated, and the youth themselves had lower educational aspirations and were less engaged in school. During high school, they described their jobs in ways that seemed more “adult-like”; they not only worked more hours and had higher earnings than their less work-invested peers, they also reported that their jobs gave them more learning opportunities, more supervisory responsibilities, and were more stressful. Sporadic workers were more like the most invested than the other youth, but they were the most strongly oriented to their peers upon entry to high school, and reported the most problem behavior.
Clearly the evidence supports processes of selection to work—patterns of employment during high school do not occur randomly but instead are linked to students’ socioeconomic backgrounds and their interests in school. The findings suggest that youth may be exercising agency, as their employment experiences during high school reflect their goals, articulated as early as the 9th grade. The steady and occasional workers pursued a line of action that reflected their strong academic motivations; they were building human capital mainly through their high level of engagement in school. For them, work was a “side line,” or even an activity that supported their educational goals—through saving for college. The most invested workers, in contrast, were seemingly more reliant on their work experiences than their school experiences to build their human capital.
Furthermore, steady and occasional workers were more likely to attend 4-year colleges and obtained highly coveted B.A. and B.S. degrees relatively quickly (Staff & Mortimer, 2007). The most invested workers were more likely to attend community colleges and vocational schools. They moved more rapidly toward “career” jobs, that is, jobs they themselves considered to be their careers (Mortimer, Vuolo, Staff, Wakefield, & Xie, 2008). Sporadic high school workers seemingly fell through the cracks, reflecting their relative lack of investment in work and in school. They were the most likely of all groups to be “idle,” neither employed nor in school, during the years immediately after high school.
The Youth Development Study also found variability in the quality of adolescent employment. Defying the notion that all teen employment is essentially the same, teenagers generally move from jobs that are more simple to those that are more complex during the four years of high school, obtaining more training, greater supervisory responsibilities, and more opportunities for advancement (Mortimer, 2003). Work quality was found to be significantly related to teen self-concepts and attitudes. That is, those whose work experiences affirm their capacities as workers (e.g., having jobs that “pay well”) and give them opportunities to advance develop a stronger sense of self-efficacy overtime (Finch, Shanahan, Mortimer, & Ryu, 1991). Stressors at work, in contrast, led to diminished self-esteem and self-efficacy, and appear to foster depressed mood (Shanahan, Finch, Mortimer, & Ryu, 1991). Interestingly, however, these negative consequences are short-lived; work stressors during adolescence may actually increase resilience (Mortimer & Staff, 2004). That is, those who experienced stressors in their jobs during high school were less likely to exhibit declines in self-concept and mental health in response to similar work stressors confronted four years after high school. Those youth, however, who had not had these prior “steeling” experiences responded to the same problems at work in much the same way as their peers had during high school. We conclude that moderate stressors at work during adolescence may teach teens valuable lessons.
Based on the findings of the Youth Development Study, we conclude that the first two answers to the question, “Is work good for youth?” are far too simplistic. Employment can have both negative and positive effects, and many of the differences between teenagers who work at high and low levels of intensity may be attributable to self-selection. We find evidence, however, that work experience can promote the healthy development of some young people, especially when it is moderate in intensity and steady in duration—attributes that assure that employment does not interfere with other important elements in a teen’s life, and instead foster an appropriate balance between school and work. Steady work may foster the development of time management skills that serve young people well as they move into college, since most college students continue to work to support themselves and to pay tuition, at least partially (Horn, Peter, & Rooney, 2002). In fact, we find remarkable continuity in patterns of working and studying during high school and the years thereafter (Staff & Mortimer, 2007).
High school jobs may also be quite beneficial for those youth who are less interested in college, and do not have the familial or personal resources (high aspirations and engagement in school) to successfully pursue a four-year college degree. Whereas moving quickly into a self-identified “career” job will confer less socio-economic benefit than pursuing higher education and later career establishment, obtaining steady work with “career prospects” is certainly a positive accomplishment for a young adult.
Much research on substance use, problem behavior, and other so-called negative consequences of employment indicates that these are largely attributable to self-selection rather than to work experience itself (for a review, see Staff et al., 2009). That is, youth who already exhibit problem behavior gravitate toward more intensive work. Employment as well as problem behavior, like early sexuality and the use of alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs, may be seen as “claims to adult status,” or indicators of “pseudomaturity.” Moreover, earnings from work may be used to purchase alcohol and drugs and to support activities, like cruising around in cars, with like-minded peers. It is noteworthy that, when differences in attitudes and behaviors are appropriately taken into account, the bad consequences of employment often disappear.
In view of these findings, how should parents handle the issue of adolescent work? Our findings suggest that youth work is not a strong matter of contention in most households, since the vast majority of parents and teens seem to be in agreement about the potential value of employment during the adolescent years. Parents, however, can still play an important role in guiding their children toward the kinds of work experiences that will be most beneficial, and helping them to avoid the risks of employment.
Parents should counsel their children to avoid hazardous workplaces. Though serious injuries in the workplace are relatively rare events, they do happen. From 1992 to 2000 approximately 68 youth died from work-related injuries each year, rates fell between 2000 and 2004 (Windau & Meyer, 2005). Parents and their teenage children should be well informed about the child labor laws in their states, as states vary in their regulations with respect to hours of work on school days, nighttime employment, and specifically prohibited occupations and tasks for 14 to 18 year-olds. Parents may inform themselves about these laws by checking the websites of their State Departments of Labor. For example, Massachusetts has prepared an informative downloadable pamphlet for parents and teens (http://www.mass.gov/Cago/docs/Workplace/teenguide_final.pdf). The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also maintains a very useful website (http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/teenworkers/index.html).
Parents should also monitor their children’s employment so that they are aware of the number of hours the adolescents work, the timing of those hours (weekday afternoons or weekends, night time work), and the general patterning of the work throughout high school. These temporal dimensions should be considered in view of the adolescent’s long-range goals. If the objective is to graduate from a four-year college, the teenager might benefit from having a steady job, but one that is limited to 20 or fewer hours per week. A “most invested” pattern of employment, is more compatible with the goal to transition more quickly from school to work, and become established in an occupational career. Teens should be encouraged to cut back on employment that “crowds out” other activities that play an important role in adolescent development, such as sports and other extracurricular activities in school, developing friendships, and time with the family. They should also avoid work that is highly stressful and carries with it few learning opportunities.
Teachers, counselors, coaches, and others who work with youth should also be aware of the linkages between patterns of work investments in high school and subsequent educational and career achievements. These adults are in particularly opportune positions to help youth to develop strategies to achieve their higher education and vocational goals. Teachers could take greater advantage of the fact that so many of their students have paid jobs, for example, by encouraging them to reflect on their work and its relation to what they are learning in the classroom in their writing assignments (for example, are they learning things in school that could be helpful in their jobs, presently or in the future? Do experiences on the job help them to better understand ideas what they are learning in school?).
Teachers and counselors might also guide students’ job-seeking. Although teens tend to move toward jobs that require more training and involve greater responsibility as they advance through high school, youth who want to work should be encouraged to seek learning opportunities and other experiences that will help them to explore their emerging vocational interests and abilities. To enhance vocational development, jobs in a variety of workplaces may be more useful than settling into a single job during the high school career (Zimmer-Gembeck & Mortimer, 2006). Teachers might present opportunities for students to discuss their work experiences in class—both good and bad—and what they have learned from them, thereby increasing students’ collective knowledge of the conditions of work in various workplaces throughout their communities. In this way, students may be able to make more informed decisions about the kinds of jobs that would be most useful to them.
Due to the limited job market for teenage workers, sometimes teens can gain access to a wider range of work settings through volunteering, internships, or various programs sponsored by their schools, including “job shadowing” an experienced worker, or work-study experiences. It is unrealistic to expect teenagers to make firm occupational choices during high school, and relatively few do so in this era of extended higher education and prolonged transitions to adulthood. Nonetheless, it is still worthwhile to begin thinking about work and the kinds of challenges and opportunities that would be most congenial to a teen’s nascent interests and capacities. Teens may begin to think about what kinds of rewards at work are most important to them, be they intrinsic (e.g., autonomy, responsibility, opportunities to express creativity, a job that enables them to help other people) or extrinsic (e.g., high income, opportunities for advancement), or some combination of both. It is during high school and the years immediately following that these values crystallize. Much school and major “shopping” as well as occupational “floundering,” could possibly be avoided if young people’s work values were sufficiently formed to provide a basis for effective educational and career decision making. Some combination of paid jobs, internships, and volunteer jobs might encourage optimal career exploration and long-term benefits.
This article summarizes findings from the Youth Development Study, supported by a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (HD 44138). It was previously funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (MH 42843). The content is solely the responsibility of the author and does not represent official views of the National Institute of Child Development or the National Institute of Health.
April 2, 2010 by middleearthnj
Adolescence is that difficult period of time when carefree children transition to responsible adults… we hope. That is the goal, after all, for teens to develop into mature, productive, responsible members of the community. One method for assisting this transition is obtaining part-time employment. A job can help teenagers better develop their identities, obtain increased autonomy, achieve new accomplishments, develop work experience, and become more independent from their parents.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 50 percent of American teenagers hold informal jobs, such as babysitting or yard work, by age 12. Boys tend to begin their jobs at younger ages and work more hours than girls. By age 15, nearly two-thirds of American teens have had some kind of employment. By the time teens graduate from high school, 80% will have held a part-time job at some time during the school year. The average high school student works 20 hours per week, and about 10% work full time (35 hours or more).
There are many obstacles to teens obtaining employment. Finding reliable transportation is critical, and that can be difficult if the job is not close by and the teen’s parent(s) work. Fighting stereotypes that employers have about adolescents, such as poor attitudes or lack of skills, can be challenging. In this particular economy, there aren’t very many job opportunities for teens.
Teens want to work for a variety of reasons, but more than half report their involvement in work is motivated by the desire to buy things. Typically, teens spend their money on car expenses, recreational expenses, clothing, educational expenses, saving for college, and helping their families with living expenses (e.g., rent, groceries).
Researchers have studied and debated the benefits and drawbacks of teens and part-time jobs for more than 2 decades. Many researchers, including those on government panels like the National Commission on Youth, praise part-time work and say it contributes to the transition from youth to adulthood. Other studies have found significant negative consequences to students working over 20 hours a week. We will take a close look at both.
Benefits of Teens Holding a Part-Time Job
There are many benefits to adolescents obtaining employment, including:
Drawbacks of Teens Holding a Part-Time Job
There are also negative consequences of teen employment that may outweigh the positive benefits, such as:
Research seems to suggest that students that work 10 hours or less a week gain the benefits of employment, while students that work over 20 hours a week suffer the negative consequences of work mentioned above. Other factors that affect how students handle employment and school life include the intensity and difficulty of the work done.
Summer employment is an excellent alternative, as it does not interfere with schooling and provides teens with a constructive use of their free time. It allows adolescents to garner all the benefits of employment without overtaxing their busy school schedules. Teens should begin looking for summer employment during Spring Break. Possible jobs for teens are: landscaping, delivering newspapers, babysitting, retail stores (such as grocery stores or clothing stores), movie theaters, working at a theme park, being a camp counselor, lifeguarding at a pool, and dog walking.
The U.S. Department of Labor sets the minimum age for employment at 14. It also limits the number of hours worked by minors under the age of 16. However, minimum age requirements do not apply to minors employed by their parents or guardian. Youths of any age may also deliver newspapers; perform in radio, television, movie, or theatrical productions; and babysit or perform other minor duties around a private home. Laws regulating employment of minors vary among states and U.S. territories, for example, many states require youth to obtain an employment and/or age certificate prior to being hired. Many times these certificated are issued by the school, but you should contact your state’s Department of Labor for more information.
How Parents Can Help Working Teens
Before your teen applies for employment, be sure to discuss the pros and cons with him or her, as well as the responsibilities associated with a job. You may also want to agree to a job on a trial basis, such as “you can work x number of hours a week this grading period and then we will decide if you can keep working, based on your grades.” There are several things that you as a parent can do for your teen to help ease the stress associated with juggling school, work, and family life:
Part-time jobs can be a wonderful experience, with the right supervision and parental guidance.
Excerpt from Youth Employment (CQ Researcher)
Nearly 6 million Americans ages 16 to 24 are not working and not in school, keeping the youth unemployment rate at nearly 15 percent. Young people are always twice as likely to be unemployed as the population as a whole, but many economists worry that young Americans are having a more difficult time since the recent recession in getting a start in the adult world. The effects of high youth unemployment are staggering: delayed marriages, depressed rates of home ownership and, for a growing percentage of young adults, the inability to move out of parental homes into a more independent lifestyle. The number of college graduates working in minimum wage jobs has more than doubled over the past five years, while the situation is even grimmer for young people with less education — particularly minorities. Meanwhile, working Americans are paying more in taxes to support social-welfare expenses for young people without jobs.
Deanna Mullenax worked for four years at what she describes as “Chicago's first punk rock bakery,” moving up from counter person to general manager of all four locations. Then the owners abruptly shut everything down.
For the next six months, Mullenax left 30 resumes per week with potential employers but couldn't get a bite. “It's unbelievable just how cut-throat it's become in the job world,” says Mullenax, 24. “You get told ‘no’ so many times, you're like, I'm-going-to-volunteer-the-rest-of-my-life-and-go-live-with-my-parents.” Finally she landed a job at another bakery.
Mullenax's experience last year highlights a serious problem. Dealing with unemployment rates persistently in the double digits since 2008, young people are not just struggling to find work but to start their lives as adults in general, delaying starting families and buying homes — or even renting. Nearly 30 percent of American adults under 35 are living with their parents, according to a recent Gallup survey.1
“If you don't have much financial security, you're not setting up your own household, getting married and having your own kids,” says Daniel J. Mitchell, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.
Unemployment among youths 16-24 — which soared above 20 percent in 2010 and was at 14.4 percent in February — is not as dire as in countries such as Spain or Greece, where more than half of young people are out of work, but the situation is worse than it has been in decades.2
Experts say persistent youth unemployment can have broad, long-lasting economic, social and political effects, ranging from billions of dollars in lost wages and government income-tax revenues, to the delay of first-time home purchases and creation of a generation of risk-averse entrepreneurs and workers.
“What's actually happening with young people is they're not only dealing with the short-term impacts of unemployment, but it's hitting them at a time when it's really important for them to step into adulthood,” says Tahir Duckett, national young-worker coordinator for the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest federation of labor unions. “That's actually holding the economy back in a major way,” he says. “Not buying their first houses, living at home with their parents — that's a drag on the entire economy.”
“The delay in reaching adulthood will have a lasting impact on U.S. society and the economy,” said Maureen Conway, executive director of the Economic Opportunities Program at the Washington-based Aspen Institute, an education and policy-studies think tank. “They are not out there making these typical, middle-class expenditures,” she said. “That is a huge problem when you think of where demand is going.”3
Instead, nearly 5.8 million of the nearly 40 million Americans ages 16 to 24 are “disconnected” — they're not in school and not working, says Russell Krumnow, managing director of Opportunity Nation, a coalition of groups concerned with youth unemployment. “That's 15 percent of that cohort totally on the sidelines” of the economy.
In the wake of the recent recession, a majority of middle-class Americans believes their children will not do better than they have, writes Joel Kotkin, an author and expert on urban trends at Chapman University, in Orange, Calif. Many are “as pessimistic about the future as are optimistic,” he writes. With fewer young people able to afford a home, he continues, some experts have theorized that America's economy is shifting to a “rentership society,” in which a small minority of wealthy Americans own all of the property and rent it to the lower classes. If such trends continue, he adds, it could lead to “the proletarianization of the American middle class.”4
After previous recessions, it took a decade or more for young people's wages to catch up to where they otherwise would have been. Already, the so-called millennial generation — those born between 1978 and 2000 — will suffer $20 billion in lost wages over the next decade due to today's high unemployment, according to the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington.5
“The best data we have shows the negative impact of starting out your career in an economy like this one,” but those studies were done during a downturn not “nearly as bad as this one,” says Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a labor-backed think tank in Washington. “If anything, it's probably going to be worse for this cohort.”
Even college graduates are struggling to find jobs commensurate with their education levels — although unemployment is far worse for people without college degrees and minorities.
Young people with low-income backgrounds or who spent time in jail face especially high barriers to employment.
In February, President Obama held a White House press conference to announce a federal task force that will address the problems of black male youths. Known as My Brother's Keeper, the program has garnered pledges of more than $200 million from various foundations over the next five years to address issues that keep young black men from succeeding, such as poor schooling, lack of mentors and encounters with the criminal justice system.6
Even kids who appear to have every advantage are struggling to find meaningful, well-paying work. The experience of so many young people being unemployed is making millennials more risk-averse — and therefore less likely to start new businesses that would create future jobs.
“Startup businesses create 3 million jobs a year,” says Timothy Kane, an economist and research fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank at Stanford University. “If that number starts to decline, that's where you're really seeing just an absence of opportunities for people to get started.”
And the job losses may not be temporary, according to economist Tyler Cowen in his 2013 book Average Is Over. While the 2007–2009 financial crash was a “very bad” one-time event, he writes, it revealed in stark terms fundamental shifts in the economy — including greater competition from abroad and increasingly advanced technology — signaling that many middle-class jobs will not be coming back.7
In her 2013 book End of the Good Life, which charts the effects of the financial crisis on her generation, 29-year-old Dow Jones reporter Riva Froymovich says the millennials should expect lower wages and less job security than their peers in China or Brazil, while coping with a higher cost of living.8
Meanwhile, the number of 20- to 24-year-olds working part time because they can't find full-time work has more than doubled in the past decade.9 Young people now are competing not only with their peers but often against experienced older workers who are eager for any job they can get in a weak market. Thus, during the recession and its aftermath, “you get this really pretty stunning decline in earnings and labor force participation for young people,” says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.
Part of high youth unemployment can be traced to government workforce cutbacks demanded by budget-cutting state and federal lawmakers. The Army, for instance, which has traditionally provided entry-level jobs and training to youths from economically challenged towns, is planning to shrink its active-duty force to the smallest size since 1940 as it winds down from the war in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, high youth unemployment is costing federal and state governments $25 billion annually in foregone, or lost, tax revenues and increased government spending on social safety net programs, according to the youth-advocacy group Young Invincibles.
A potential silver lining is that many young people who could not find jobs have been “sheltering” in school, receiving more education and presumably the skills to take on more demanding jobs. Recent Census Bureau data show that the number of adults who completed at least some graduate school increased by nearly 25 percent between 2008 and 2013 — from 29 million to 36 million — more than the 30 million people who completed a bachelor's degree during that period.10
“We are the most educated group of 20-somethings in history,” Froymovich writes.11
However, Kane, the Hoover economist, warns that the country might be experiencing an “education bubble,” with too many people starting college but not gaining marketable skills — or even a degree. “Right now, every year, too many kids are dropping out of college with a lot of debt, no work experience and no degree,” he says. Still, most politicians emphasize the need for young adults to attain more education and training, with employers demanding higher skill levels — which vary widely by occupation, but generally involve more technology and communication ability than was true a decade or two ago.
“In order to have middle-income, middle-paying jobs — the kinds of jobs that allow people to get ahead — you have to have [a] higher level of training and skill acquisition and education than ever before,” Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said last month on the “PBS NewsHour.” “We have too many people that don't have those skills. And, in fact, the people who would most benefit from acquiring those skills are the ones least likely to get it because of its cost or because of the way the system is structured.”12
All that extra education is expensive, however. Overall student debt is at a record high. And, while college graduates continue to have lower unemployment rates than their less-educated peers, a degree is no guarantee of a job. The number of college graduates working for minimum wage, or less, has more than doubled in the past five years.
As policymakers ponder ways of putting more young people to work, here are some of the questions they are debating:
Youth unemployment has been running about double the overall national rate since the recent recession. But then, it nearly always does. “Youth unemployment is almost entirely a product of high unemployment in general,” says Hoover's Kane.
Sarah Ayres, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, agrees. “Young people have always had a harder time in the workforce than older people,” she says. “It's a much tougher prospect now because there just aren't enough jobs to go around.”
In other words, the current high unemployment numbers for youths may just be symptomatic of what's been happening in the economy as a whole. And much of the recent drop in the unemployment rate has come not because people are securing jobs, but because many are simply giving up and leaving the workforce, according to census data.
Young people would be able to find jobs — if only there were more jobs to find, suggests Catherine Ruetschlin, a policy analyst with Demos, a liberal think tank in New York City. She notes that about half the jobs created over the past year are in low-wage sectors that are most likely to hire young people, namely, leisure and hospitality, retail and health and education services.
Nothing is “independently attacking young workers,” says the Economic Policy Institute's Shierholz. “Young workers have high unemployment relative to older workers right now, but they always do.”
Still, deeper changes may be happening in entry-level employment that will continue to affect young people's chances after the current economic cycle has run its course, Georgetown's Carnevale suggests. Many more jobs now require some form of postsecondary education, just to get hired, he says. “The requirements have gone up,” he says. “The whole business of getting on the job track has become harder.”
There are all kinds of skills that people learn on the job that aren't taught in classrooms, says Kane — including the basics, such as showing up on time and communicating well with co-workers. It's a buyer's market, and many employers would rather not bother hiring people who are green.
“I'll hire someone who's 27, and he's fine,” a car rental manager told economics writer Megan McArdle. “But if I hire someone who's 23 or 24, they need everything spelled out for them, they want me to hover over their shoulder.”13
There's little expectation that workers will stay with a company throughout their careers, or even for a significant number of years, so employers don't want to spend money training people who might then take their skills elsewhere. “They don't want to make the investment and lose it,” says Arne Kalleberg, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill who studies employment issues. A major structural change is that “employers are increasingly reluctant to train people. The job ladders we were used to seeing in the first 30 years after World War II are largely gone.”
All of this creates ripple effects. Older workers are taking better-paying jobs, meaning more college graduates are working for minimum wage. That's crowding out people with less education. The share of people ages 25 to 32 with only a high school diploma who are living in poverty has grown from 7 percent in 1979 to 22 percent today.14
“You have 45-year-olds taking jobs that maybe in the past would have gone to young people, because they're out of work and desperate for income,” says Krumnow, of Opportunity Nation. “We're still in the hole multiple millions of jobs from the Great Recession,” he says. “As that cascades down, it's going to hit young people the hardest.”
Ruetschlin agrees that in a tough job market there is some advantage to being older and more experienced. “The folks [young people] are competing against may have had more of a chance to work in the sector,” she says. “It really is just an easier weeding-out process for human resources departments that are flooded by applicants.”
“There's a huge, underlying structural problem in terms of preparing youths, in particular male youths and male youths of color, for jobs,” says Betsy Brand, executive director of the American Youth Policy Forum, a nonprofit group that advocates policies that improve outcomes for youth. “It has always been bad, but it's worse now.”
That may be a greater challenge for young people “in communities where there are no jobs, especially inner-city minority communities,” Carnevale says. The problems are compounded for those who haven't completed high school, let alone attained a college degree or who have been incarcerated.
The problem of youth unemployment — along with joblessness in general — is a high priority among policymakers in Washington and around the country.
In February, President Obama directed Vice President Joseph Biden to oversee an overhaul of the plethora of federal job training programs. “The first thing is, let's create more jobs,” Obama said in a Jan. 30 speech on the economy in Wisconsin. “Number two, we've got to train Americans with the skills to fill those jobs.”15
Not everyone is convinced that the government should be in the business of providing job training in the first place. Job training programs — which tend to offer instruction in specific sets of skills, such as dental work or manufacturing — sound great in theory, says Kane, the Hoover economist, but have a poor track record of moving people into permanent employment.
A 2011 Government Accountability Office (GAO) study found that, as of 2009, the federal government ran 47 workforce training programs, administered by nine agencies, at an annual cost of $18 billion.16 Little is known, however, about their effectiveness, because only five had measured their results in terms of placing people in jobs, the report said.
“In 2012, [Republican] Sen. Tom Coburn's office examined workforce training in Oklahoma and found that Job Corps [a longstanding youth training program] spends $76,000 per participant to place youth in jobs that are often minimum wage and don't require training,” The Wall Street Journal noted in February. “Culinary students have been put to work as funeral attendants, tour guides, baggage porters and telemarketers.”17
Last year, the House approved a bill that would streamline 35 sometimes overlapping job training programs, essentially turning them into state block grants. The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions passed a different version of the legislation in July that would address the issue differently, but it has yet to be called up for floor action.
There's still a role for government in preparing workers, especially with employers generally not offering on-the-job training, says the University of North Carolina's Kalleberg, author of the 2011 book Good Jobs, Bad Jobs.
Like many observers, Kalleberg is encouraged by the growth of public-private partnerships in which employers join with community colleges and other government entities to train young people with real-world skills for jobs available in their communities. “Vocational education has always been looked down upon as a lower-status thing than a four-year degree,” he says. “That's the gap we need to fill, and government needs to provide opportunities.”
Aside from job training, there's a debate about whether government spending could help ease unemployment by spending more money on, for example, infrastructure improvements and expanding the economy. But federal agencies have experienced a de facto hiring freeze for the past three years, and federal employment is down by nearly 90,000 positions over the past year.18 Similarly, state and local governments have shed 500,000 jobs since the beginning of the recession in 2007.19
Young workers have become “collateral damage of the deficit hawks' single-minded focus on debt,” says Duckett of the AFL-CIO. “Most of the job losses that have happened over the past four years are government jobs that are being shed” due to government cutbacks aimed at controlling the national debt.
Under the Pentagon's current budget proposal, the ranks of the active-duty Army would be reduced to as low as 450,000 troops — from a high of 570,000 during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.20 That eliminates a potential avenue for many young people, particularly those in rural areas who have looked to the military as an employer of last resort.
Michael Strain, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, contends that rather than having the government create jobs, it should subsidize employment for the young by giving tax credits to companies that hire young people.
“We want to make it easier for firms to be hiring young people. That's a major challenge,” he says, and federal money could help. “We should be thinking about wage subsidies or earned-income tax credit expansions,” Strain says. “That will draw more people into jobs, into the labor force, and will make some of these jobs that don't pay much more appealing.”
Mitchell, of the Cato Institute, rejects the idea that government should take an active role in boosting employment. The best way for government to create jobs, he says, is simply to get out of the way. Like the Hoover Institution's Kane, he worries that government mandates — such as minimum wage requirements and health benefit mandates under the Affordable Care Act — are making the cost of hiring new workers prohibitive in many cases.
But policymakers in both parties seem wedded to the idea of helping young people prepare for the contemporary — and future — work force. Democrats like the idea of using government programs to help address training needs. Republicans favor education in general, believing that it calls on individuals to take responsibility for self-improvement, rather than relying on outside aid.
“Preparing people with skills for the 21st century is something both parties want to own,” says Krumnow, of Opportunity Nation.
James Roy, 26, has spent the past six years trying to pay off $14,000 in student debt. He's bounced from job to job and is now working at a coffee shop in a Chicago suburb.
“It seems to me that if you went to college and took on student debt, there used to be greater assurance that you could pay it off with a good job,” he said. “But now, for people living in this economy and our age group, it's a rough deal.”21
Roy may take a long time getting on his feet. A recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found that workers who are unemployed for various lengths of time earn substantially lower wages for nearly 20 years. After 10 years, those who were out of work for less than six months earn 9 percent less than those who have been at work continuously. And workers who were out of work for more than six months still earned wages that were 32 percent less.22
“The cohort as a whole is worse off, and those significant scarring effects last a very long time — one to two decades,” says Shierholz, of the Economic Policy Institute.
Already, it's taking young workers several more years before they earn the national median wage (they reach it at age 30 now, compared to age 26 back in 1980).23 The fact that young people spend years earning less money is having a broad impact.
Retailers that cater to teens are seeing a big drop in spending.24 Adults in their 20s are less likely to live on their own, get married and start families. A Gallup survey released in February found that 14 percent of adults between the ages of 24 and 34 — “those in the post-college years, when most young adults are trying to establish independence” — are living at home with their parents.25
One economic problem compounds another. With student debt having tripled over the past decade to $1 trillion, some analysts believe it is hampering home sales to first-time buyers. “It's going to have an extraordinary dampening effect on young peoples' ability to borrow for a home, and that's going to impact the housing market and the economy at large,” said David H. Stevens, chief executive of the Mortgage Bankers Association.26
Wealth among younger families is still down considerably from pre-recession levels, with housing being a major cause, according to the St. Louis Federal Reserve. “The homeownership rate among younger families has plunged, reflecting [foreclosures and] delayed entry into homeownership among newly formed households,” write researchers William R. Emmons and Bryan J. Noeth. “The house-price gains that have helped many older families to rebuild homeowners' equity have been overshadowed among younger families by the ongoing retreat from homeownership.”27
In addition to not buying homes, young people also are moving less. From the 1980s to the 2000s, the percentage of people 18 to 24 who moved across state lines dropped by 41 percent — a sign of diminished economic opportunity, since jobs are the primary reason people move.28
In general, today's young people are apt to be risk-averse, says Neil Howe, founder and president of LifeCourse Associates, a consulting firm that studies generational trends. “We definitely see evidence that entrepreneurship has ebbed among millennials,” he says.
Not all aspects of the trend are bad, he says, noting that all manner of youth risk indicators are down, including violent crime, alcohol use and teen pregnancy.
However, some question whether the economic and cultural effects of high youth unemployment will be lasting. “We don't know what this generation of folks is going to look like 10 years from now,” the AFL-CIO's Duckett says.
Others see the impact of high youth unemployment as the result of longstanding trends — and not just due to the 2007–09 recession. The development of a “new life stage” for young adults from about 18 to 29 years of age has been happening for decades, says Jeffrey Arnett, a psychologist at Clark University, in Worcester, Mass., who has written several books and articles about what he calls “emerging adulthood.”
The age at which people get married or buy their first home has been ticking steadily upward over the past 20 years or more, he says. “People are not adolescents any more, but they're not really settled into a stable adulthood” either, he says. For example, Pew Research Center data indicate that 13 percent of 25- to 32-year-olds — called Generation Xers — were living at home in 1995, while 12 percent of late baby boomers in that age range lived with their folks in 1986.29
“I don't want to dismiss the effects of this recession — it was a severe one,” Arnett says. “It is more difficult for young people, no doubt. But we just don't know how that's going to influence their economic lives, or any other aspect of their lives, 20, 30 or 40 years from now.”
On Feb. 27, President Obama announced an initiative to address problems facing black male youths. Known as My Brother's Keeper, the program has garnered pledges of $200 million over the next five years from a variety of foundations. Along with business leaders and others, the foundations will seek solutions for issues such as early childhood development, school readiness, educational opportunity and the criminal justice system.
At a White House event, Obama called the challenge of creating success among young black males a “moral issue for our country,” noting that they are more likely than other groups to be illiterate or suspended from school — and were almost certain to encounter the criminal justice system, whether as victim or suspect.
“This is not a one-year proposition,” Obama said. “It's not a two-year proposition. It's going to take time. We're dealing with complicated issues that run deep in our history, run deep in our society and are entrenched in our minds.”51
Of more than 2,500 school-based arrests in Chicago during a six-month period in 2011 and 2012, 75 percent of the arrests involved black students. Nationwide, black youths represent 16 percent of the youth population, but they account for 28 percent of juvenile arrests and 37 percent of the detained population.52
“This is one of the issues that we as a country are going to have to tackle head-on,” says Ruetschlin, the Demos policy analyst. “We're going to have to admit that there's a problem with lack of opportunities for non-white workers.”
That presents a problem for society as a whole, since young, non-whites are a growing share of the potential workforce. Whites will no longer make up a majority of the U.S. population by 2042, according to the Census Bureau. Minorities already represent a majority of newborns.53
“We have seen no gains in the post-civil rights era,” Ruetschlin says. “African-American unemployment is consistently double that for white workers.”
Shierholz, the Economic Policy Institute economist, says disparate effects can be seen even when there is no deliberate discrimination. Minorities tend to live in communities where less opportunity is available, and generations of poverty have made the chance to get ahead through personal and professional networks less likely.
“At a time when jobs are scarce, your job-finding networks can be even more important,” Shierholz says. “Minorities have less access to fruitful job-finding success, which matters at a time when jobs are so weak.”
Even in areas where more positive outcomes are available for African-American and Hispanic youths, they often meet with less success than whites. In 11 states, not a single African-American took the Advanced Placement (AP) exam in computer science last year. The same was true for Hispanics in eight states. That means their enrollment in computer AP classes was limited, or nonexistent.54
A recent University of Southern California study found that even at the state's best high schools, Asian and white graduates were much more likely to attend four-year colleges than Hispanics. Nearly half of the Hispanics who graduated from top-performing high schools — 46 percent — enrolled at a community college after graduation, compared with 19 percent of Asians and 27 percent of whites.55
Carnevale, the Georgetown scholar, has found that African-Americans and Hispanics are attending college in greater numbers, but there is a wide disparity among the quality of institutions they attend, compared with those whites attend.56
“We're seeing the evolution of a dual-system in higher education today, where increasingly students from low-income families and students of color are going to far less endowed and resourced community colleges and four-year schools,” says Dianne Piche, senior counsel at the Leadership Committee on Civil Rights, in Washington.
College promotes social mobility for relatively few low-income students, mainly because so few of them attain degrees, according to Andrew P. Kelly, director of the Center for Higher Education Reform at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank. Over the past decade, less than 15 percent of students from the bottom income quartile earned a bachelor's degree, compared with 61 percent of those in the top quartile.57
Numerous policymakers are looking for ways to make higher education more affordable and universal. Sen. Rubio likes the idea of private investors paying tuition in exchange for a share of a student's future earnings — say, 4 percent over 10 years.
He also suggests that the college-accreditation model be changed to allow work experience to count toward a degree. Traditional colleges and universities will remain at the heart of the education system, he says, but in an era of economic disruption, greater flexibility is required. “People should be allowed, through internships and work study and online courses and classroom courses and life and work experience, to be able to package all of that together into the equivalent of a degree.”58
Numerous lawmakers and policy analysts emphasize that while four-year degrees are important, they may not be ideal or even appropriate — or attainable — for everyone. But with increasing numbers of jobs requiring skills and preparation that aren't offered in high school, many are emphasizing the need for some sort of postsecondary education and training.
“There's no state where there's low educational achievement and a high income,” said Arkansas state Sen. Keith Ingram.59
Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, in his State of the State address in January, highlighted the fact that skilled-trade apprenticeships have gone up 34 percent in Wisconsin over the past year. Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, in his Feb. 3 State of the State address, proposed making two years of community college or technical training free for any state resident with a high school diploma or the equivalent, without regard to academic credentials or financial need.
Meanwhile, cities such as Cleveland and San Francisco are providing small savings accounts to students as early as kindergarten, believing even $50 put away toward college is enough to spark expectations about actually attending. A recent National Bureau of Economic Research study found that a $1,000 increase in tax refunds received by families in the spring of students' high school senior year increased college enrollment the next fall by 2 to 3 percentage points.60
But for all the homage politicians pay to higher education, they haven't always backed it up with cash. Over the past 25 years, measured in real dollars, state support for public colleges and universities has dropped from $8,500 per student to $5,900, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers association. State spending on higher education has dropped by 10.6 percent over the past five years — including cuts of nearly 50 percent in Arizona, Florida and New Hampshire.61
Although some naysayers question the value of college, given the ever-increasing costs of a degree, employers are still willing to pay a premium for people with college degrees, says Georgetown's Carnevale.
“In the old days, work ethic was enough to get you in a job, and then you learned on the job,” he says. “Now, the on-ramp is tougher and tougher, because of [skill] requirements.” The age at which the average young American earns the national average has risen from 26 to 30 years since the 1990s, he points out.
A recent Pew Research Center study found that college graduates ages 25 to 32 working fulltime are earning about $17,500 more than employed young adults with only a high school diploma. College-educated millennials are also much less likely to be unemployed than their less-educated peers (3.8 percent compared with 12.2 percent).62
But are all college degrees created equal? In a January speech promoting job training programs, Obama said, “I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”
The president soon apologized to the nation's humanities majors. And the Association of American Colleges and Universities recently put out a report indicating that humanities and social science majors, although they may struggle at first, can end up making as much or more later in life than people with more “practical” degrees in sciences or engineering. Going on to get graduate degrees is the key.63
An increasing number of colleges and universities are working with state governments and regional employers to craft programs that will train graduates for jobs in their areas. But leaders in the higher education field say their role is not simply to act as job-training facilities.
It's not that university presidents want to churn out more art history majors, medievalists or Shakespeare scholars. Rather, they insist that a broader education helps prepare students not just for the first job that might be available after graduation but for a lifetime of problem-solving, communication and continuing education.
“We are understandably quite focused on jobs, but we sometimes forget that a person's last job may not be related to her first job,” says Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, a higher education advocacy association. “If we want to continue to sustain prosperity in this increasingly competitive global economy, we're going to have to continue up the value chain of skills and knowledge,” she says.
Every generation responds differently to enormous societal challenges, says Howe, the Lifecourse Associates president. Unlike earlier generations, he says, today's young people have no desire to grow up fast and become more independent.
“The world is horrible out there,” he says. “Thinking about that kind of world, if we have a period of extreme economic crisis and unrest long enough, like in the '30s and '40s, we might see young people extremely desirous of not rocking the world.”
Young people today have reason to be a bit gun shy. They've faced bad job markets for more than five years — a big percentage, or in some cases all, of their working lives.
“At the rate of average employment growth we had last year, adding an average of 185,000 jobs a month, we would see the economy recovering to pre-recession levels in 2019 or 2020,” says Ruetschlin, the Demos policy analyst. “That means a full decade of labor-market disadvantages for young people.”
Such a timeframe is long enough for yet another recession to hit, further imperiling young people's chances of success. Even when they do get jobs, today's young adults will be doing worse than they would have for years to come, says Shierholz, the Economic Policy Institute economist. “The larger economy will have recovered from the Great Recession, but the cohort that entered the labor market during it will not,” she says.
Like other economists, she expects the American labor force to continue shrinking. “Extrapolating from current trends, I would expect that there will be fewer people working, and that the problems we have would be larger,” says Strain, the American Enterprise Institute economist.
In their new book The Second Machine Age, MIT researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andy McAfee say many more jobs done by humans can be done by robots and software.64 A recent Oxford University paper says two-thirds of the tasks performed in the 10 jobs expected to grow the fastest over the next decade will soon be automated, including personal care aides and janitors and cleaners.65
It's dangerous trying to predict the economic future, says Arnett, the Clark University psychologist, but other trends affecting young people — such as delays in getting married and having children — are likely to continue.
“Having observed this for 20 years, what's striking to me is the consistency of the patterns,” Arnett says. “Every year, more and more people are getting more and more education, in response to the realities of the labor market.”
He takes heart from history. A century ago, he notes, young people were not universally expected to get a high school education. Now, that's taken for granted. The same sort of thing needs to happen with higher education, he says. “In the early 20th century, there was a recognition that people need more education,” he says. “That's what we need to recognize in the early 21st century.”
Of course, the question of how to pay for college remains central. “We're facing a really dire sort of future in 10 years,” says Duckett, from the AFL-CIO. “That's what we're going to continue to see, folks paying for more and more school, incurring more and more debt to fight it out for fewer and fewer jobs.”
An alternative scenario, Duckett suggests, could play out if the federal government invests more in infrastructure and in spending that aids young people generally. But Washington isn't going to do much to address such issues, suggests Kalleberg, the University of North Carolina sociologist — in part because of the political paralysis that is likely to continue at least through the Obama years.
“Americans do not have enough tolerance of big government for things to come out of Washington,” he says.
Despite increasing concerns about income inequality, there will be little appetite for anything that smacks of income redistribution, says Carnevale, the Georgetown scholar. Instead, leaders in both parties will continue to talk about creating opportunity. “Jobs and upward mobility are not a hard sell on either side,” he says. “It fits with the American narrative.”
But despite all the attention being paid to higher education and workplace apprenticeships, says Ayres of the Center for American Progress, what's really needed to address employment needs is simple: jobs.
“You can educate people all you want and have a great, educated workforce, but if there aren't enough jobs to go around, if businesses feel that they don't have enough customers, we're not going to create jobs, and we're not going to have full employment,” she says.
Jack Dorsey and Jim McKelvey wanted to launch a company that enables businesses to process credit card payments from mobile devices. But they found that their hometown of St. Louis lacked enough people with the right programming skills. So they started Square, which is now a multibillion-dollar enterprise, in San Francisco instead.
Still, the entrepreneurs wanted to do something to improve the economy at home, so they formed an apprentice program to match young people without computer science degrees with experienced programmers at St. Louis companies, including Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Monsanto and Panera, the bakery and restaurant chain.
“To be in the position where you have the job but you don't have the degree, it's once in a lifetime,” said Terrence Bowen, who was placed as an apprentice program developer at Clearent, a credit card payment-processing company. “In spite of knowing how much I didn't know, Clearent still took me on because they saw potential.”1
The idea came to McKelvey because he had once apprenticed as a glass blower (even though he found a career in business ultimately more profitable). Apprenticeships, or paid worker training, traditionally have been associated with skilled trades in manufacturing and construction and are far more prevalent in Europe. But the idea of matching young people with companies where they can gain experience — and often course credit — is hot right now, spreading into many more occupations such as financial services, food preparation and health care.
In his State of the Union address in January, President Obama called for “more apprenticeships that set a young worker on an upward trajectory for life.” In subsequent speeches, he said the nation should move away from “train and pray” programs that don't necessarily lead to employment. “What we need to do is look at where are the jobs and take a job-driven approach to training,” he said at a General Electric facility in Wisconsin.2 Governors have been touting the idea as well.
Apprenticeships provide employers with relatively low-cost labor, since apprentices typically make 50 to 60 percent of the wages they'll earn after mastering a skill, according to Sarah Ayres, a policy analyst with the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. Apprenticeships can run from one to six years, but the average length of a registered apprentice program is four years.3
Apprentices go on to earn good salaries, she says, without having taken on the heavy burden of debt often associated with four-year college degrees. A 2012 study by Mathematica Policy Research, a Princeton social policy research firm, found that people who complete apprentice programs registered with the Department of Labor earn an average of $240,037 more over the course of their careers than those from similar backgrounds who didn't participate in such programs.4
“Clearly, apprenticeships are a win-win: They provide workers with sturdy rungs on that ladder of opportunity and employers with the skilled workers they need to grow their businesses,” wrote Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez. “And yet in America, they've traditionally been an undervalued and underutilized tool in our nation's workforce development arsenal.”5
There were only 330,578 registered apprentices in the United States last year — less than 40 percent as many as in Great Britain, which has a population one-fifth the size. By contrast, more than half of young people ages 15 to 19 prepare for future work through apprenticeships in European countries such as Norway, Germany, Switzerland and Austria.6 (In the United States, most formal apprenticeships don't start until people are in their 20s and typically have no connection to high school vocational programs.)
The United States will never have apprentice programs on the scale of those countries, says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “In the American case, we don't have a European system where workforce development is jointly run by employers, schools, unions and government,” Carnevale says. “Without that, we're not going to have [large-scale] apprenticeships.”
In fact, the number of apprenticeships in the United States has been trending down since the 1950s, he says, dropping by a third over the past decade.
“The Europeans do it and it's very powerful, with 60 or 70 percent of the kids leaving high school with job skills,” Carnevale says. “People see that and say, ‘My God, this really works,’ and promote it here, but nothing ever happens.”
He notes that President Bill Clinton promoted the idea during the 1990s — he called it “school-to-work” — but nothing much came of it because the interests of all the parties involved — educators, employers, labor unions and the government — didn't always line up.
Ayres suggests that rather than seeking to overhaul the education system, as Clinton was trying to do, building demand among businesses is the way to go. Once individual businesses get involved, she says, they love the idea.
“For years, businesses have been saying they can't find workers with the skills to fit their jobs,” Ayres says. “We think this is a good way to provide businesses with good workers, while providing workers with long-term, good-paying careers.”
— Alan Greenblatt