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The Young and the Jobless

Idaho youth struggle with one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation


Here's how these stories almost always go: So-and-So, 19, recently graduated from Such-and-Such High School with reasonably good grades and high aspirations. But So-and-So's family has fallen on hard times and he/she is deciding to work for a few years to save money for college. Trouble is, despite his/her good grades, he/she hasn't been able to find steady work and is striking out in the job market. It's the same for So-and-So, 24, who just graduated from Such-and-Such University but who has had to move home with mom and dad and work retail.

What follows is an extended amount of personal hand-wringing, culminating in a hopeful finale that, with hard work, things will get better.

That narrative might make for tidy newspaper copy, but it masks a painful reality: The kids aren't all right. Far from it.

The Screwed

They go by a lot of names: in Japan, they're called "freeters," a mash-up of the word "freelance" and the German word for worker, "arbeiter." The Spanish call them "mileuristas," or "those who earn less than a thousand euros" a month; in England they're the "NEETs," those "not in employment, education or training"; they're the "hittistes" in Tunisia, "those who lean against the wall"; and in Egypt, they get more to the point, calling them the "shabab atileen," or "unemployed youths."

Writing for the Daily Beast, Joel Kotkin, Chapman University urban futures scholar, throws a big net around the demographic, simply terming it "The Screwed Generation." And while Kotkin's phrase may sound flip, the Screwed feel it and aren't afraid to act on their frustrations. As Kotkin notes, the home countries of the mileuristas, the NEETs, the hittistes and the shabab atileen read like a where's-where of social unrest. But things aren't much better in the United States, where youth unemployment rates are similar to those in countries like France, England and Italy and the situation in Idaho is among the worst in the nation.

According to data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in February, Idaho had the sixth-highest teen unemployment rate in 2011: Among those 16-19 years of age 29.9 percent were out of work, a figure surpassed only by Washington state, with 30.4 percent; Nevada, 31.9 percent; North Carolina, 32 percent; Missouri, 32.7 percent; and California, with 35.2 percent.

Though the Idaho Department of Labor doesn't track unemployment by any demographic measure, officials with the department said they would trust the BLS figures.

"I'm guessing that would be more-or-less accurate," said Ben Phillips, a grants management officer for the Idaho Youth Corps, which works directly with youth to find them employment. "It's really hard for them. It's a new game, for lack of a better term."

For those who work with teens in the labor market, a high unemployment rate is nothing new, though the most-current numbers are strikingly high. According to best estimates, more than 50 percent of Idaho teens were employed at least part-time as recently as the late-1990s. But with the economic dislocation of the past decade, teens aren't just competing against each other for those so-called "starter" jobs in hospitality and retail--their resumes are going head-to-head with those of older and more-experienced workers who are trying to get by in the wake of layoffs or shortened hours.

"It causes a domino effect," said Kim Burnett, coordinator of the Qualified Worker Retraining Program at North Idaho College in Coeur d'Alene and a seven-year veteran of helping youth find work in Spokane, Wash. "The jobs teens were taking are now being taken by 30-year-olds, 40-year-olds. When you go to a fast-food restaurant, you're more likely to see an adult behind the counter. The youth end up at the bottom of the domino, and that sort of leaves them out."

The aging of low-wage employment affects more than teens, though, expanding to include college-age youth and recent college graduates alike.

According to the BLS, 15.3 percent of Idahoans 20-24 years of age were out of work in 2011, along with 9.6 percent of those 25-34 years of age. Combine those unemployment figures with the 29.9 percent of Idahoans not working in the 16-19 age group, and that's roughly 38,000 eligible workers age 16-34 who aren't working. Meanwhile, 18.1 percent of Idaho workers in the much wider range between 35 and 64 years of age are out of work, amounting to about 28,000 jobless workers.

What that adds up to is the fact that older workers are doing much better in Idaho than their younger counterparts, and while that may be good news for that age cohort--those most likely to have families and mortgages--it's contributing to a long-term skills deficit among younger workers that could spell trouble for Idaho's future economic recovery.

"I don't know if it's a lesser of two evils or not," Phillips said. "When an adult is working, they're focusing on putting food on their table, but in the long term, we're taking away that opportunity for the next working generation to really learn those employment skills."

Soft Skill Shortage

Burnett said she works mostly with adults at the NIC Qualified Worker Retraining Program, but when she was a youth employment specialist in Washington, the skills deficit was already showing itself among teens.

"What we would see is the kids either coming out of high school or dropping out of high school and just not having the foundation to find even a first job," she said. "We'd have placements of kids in the aerospace industry, and they'd come back saying they couldn't stand up all day. It's the whole new generation of not wanting to do hard, physical work. Everybody wants to be an athlete or design video games. 'Well, do you know anything about math?' 'No, I just want to design video games.'

"Some kids didn't even know how to read a tape measure," she added. "That's pretty much where we're at now."

Jan Roeser is a regional economist with the Department of Labor in South-Central Idaho. She agreed that with older workers snapping up most of the jobs typically taken by inexperienced workers, certain industries are starting to see major skill gaps that will only get worse as time goes by.

"There have been such a huge number of companies who have held off hiring. All of a sudden, everybody's going to need somebody all at once, and then we're going to have these big labor gaps," she said. "Employers are already coming to us saying, 'I can't find anybody to hire for this job.' A big gap here in south-central Idaho is specialty science positions at food processors, but certain jobs like those are less popular for kids even though they're more needed."