Daniel Nash | A poor job market for teens burdens our economic future | Editorial

"Why don't you get a job?"

It's the age-old summertime refrain passed from every parent who hopes to develop their teen's work ethic and let the couch cushions air out.

As a teen living in a growth explosion area of California, in the middle of the Bush-era economic boom, my only obstacle to gainful employment was a brisk walk to one of many new Starbucks down Oso Parkway; every day I didn't have a job, it was strictly because I was lazy.

That remained true after I relocated to Washington state: from age 17 to 22, I was a barista, a gofer, a shoe salesman, a Teamster and a barista again. Each time, I would decide one day I wanted to be a thing, and a week later I would be that thing. The economy was good.

But today's jobless teens and young adults can respond to their parents, without snark (but probably adding a little snark, anyway): "No one's hiring."

Of course, that's not strictly true. The City of Bonney Lake, for example, just collected a small stable of young adults for its summer Public Works openings. Plus, if businesses had stopped hiring young people entirely, I wouldn't feel so suddenly old every time I go to the movie theater.

Yet we're bombarded every week with bleak news from the jobs market. Hold on: the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the unemployment rate went down a tenth of a percentage point in April, and 115,000 new jobs were created across the country. Not quite the 200,000 the Bureau had projected, but not bad; it actually seems like improvement. Until you dig a little deeper and realize we would need 125,000 jobs per month just to huff-and-puff alongside population growth, which still wouldn't make up for the 5 million jobs lost in the past half-decade. And that 0.1 percent drop in the unemployment rate? Well, you can thank the heroes in the Bureau for having the courage to discount people booted from the unemployment dole. Prosperity!

That percentage came right back up in May, by the way.

Teen workers nationwide bear the brunt of unemployment with a rate just under 25 percent. Pierce County already outpaces the country (9 percent, but improving), so it's not unreasonable to postulate that teen unemployment is proportionately worse.

Anecdotal confirmation comes straight out of Bonney Lake High School: counselors from the campus career center—speaking through district spokeswoman Ann Cook—believe the 2011-2012 school year had the least job offerings of any since the school opened in 2005. The counseling staff was hesitant to meet and talk about job prospects, Cook said, because there just weren't any.

To an extent, higher unemployment for the age group is to be expected; maybe even okay. The lucky majority of that age group still have their basic needs taken care of by parents or guardians. There's a higher likelihood that any wage earned is expendable income or savings. And non-entrance to the workforce could represent a choice to focus on studies. A happy accident of declining job prospects has been an observed decrease in dropouts in the Sumner School District.

"It's kind of an upside," Cook said. "The kids who would drop out might not see it that way, but the soft job market is keeping them enrolled."

But the prospect of no work for teens is still a terrifying one. You can write off money as a concern. You can champion the educational alternative. But a job is an education in its own right.

We all remember our first job; people tend to remember their first trip to Hell. No, the job isn't materially worse than others of its kind, or other jobs you'll hold in the future. But your inaugural job has something no other job will ever have again: that first sweet moment when you feel really, really stupid.

Everyone has it in some form. If you're lucky, your moment was realizing you didn't know how to do a basic part of your job. You either asked for help or someone corrected you, maybe scolded you, and that was that. If you're really lucky, your moment was a smart aleck comment that ended in the biggest shaming of your life up to that point or since. For most people, it's the realization, "Oh no, this customer line/conveyer belt/swarm of angry bees isn't stopping just because I'm frustrated/tired/bleeding from my sting-wounds!"

That first job is a trial by fire, and the reward at the end of the working day isn't money so much as it is work ethic, a sense of responsibility and properly calibrated expectations for the adult world. And the reason it's "Hell" isn't the working conditions; it's the realization—at an age when you think you know everything—that you didn't know anything. Everyone has to confront that hump. So it's scary to consider that more people aren't approaching that milestone until their early 20s; after college and with jobs that have greater consequences for shoddy performance.

"I think employers… realize it's part of their responsibility to provide that education and experience for young, first-time workers," said Lora Butterfield, the Executive Director of the Bonney Lake Chamber of Commerce. I caught Lora on business out of town, but she was gracious enough to take some time out of her schedule to chat with me over the phone.

She's passionate about preserving opportunities for young workers, and pins their decline on two aspects of government control: the minimum wage and workplace environment regulation.

"(Minimum wage) is probably the biggest factor," she said. "When minimum wage is this high (Washington has the highest minimum wage in the country at $9.04 an hour)… we have a member of the chamber and his business is one where he's paying so much for a minimum wage job, he wants higher quality. His thinking is, 'If I'm paying that much, I don't want to have a kid.'

"And regulation is very similar in the sense that it makes a young worker less attractive to a potential employer. Even places like Walmart, they might have some teens up front on the retail floor, but there's a whole segment of the store in back—the warehouse—where those workers can't contribute because of regulation. Even…in the parking lot, they have cart pusher machines now that teens can't use because of restrictions on teens using certain machinery. So you have another job, normally filled by a teen, that can no longer use them."

While minors should have some workplace protection, Lora makes points that are hard to refute. If you're a Washington small business owner looking to fill a minimum wage position, and your choice is between a worker who can do the whole job and a worker who can legally only do part of the job, you go with the more economically viable option. Even if you believe in educating young workers, self interest has to win out if you think the survival of your business is at stake.

The term "double-dip recession"—a recession followed by a few quarters of growth, then another recession—has been used quite a bit in describing the economic activity in the past five years.  If the job market doesn't become more amenable to our teenagers soon, we face a double-dip recession in the long-term. And the second drag will be driven by a large, untrained, inexperienced and possibly consequently incompetent work force. All because no one could afford to take an early chance.

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