The National Teen Jobs Crisis: Alternative Policies to Boost In High School Employment and Improve the Early School-to-Work Transition

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Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday period, both President Obama and Austin Scott, the newly-elected U.S. Representative from Georgia, took to the air waves to address the nation, and they called for renewed efforts “to accelerate this economy” and “focus on creating jobs.” Specifics on what policy steps would be taken to put more American adults to work were not provided.

A careful analysis of developments in U.S. labor markets over the past three years would reveal that teens, young adults (20-29), blue collar workers, and low income workers with limited schooling were the most adversely affected by the Great Recession and its listless recovery. Addressing the teen job crisis, which has been a decade in the making, should be a priority of both the Obama Administration and the U.S. Congress in the year ahead.

The group of working-age teens experiencing the largest relative decline in their employment rate over the past decade are high school students. In calendar year 2000, during an average month, close to 35 of every 100 high school students were working. By 2010, their employment rate had dropped to only slightly above 16 percent, a decline of more than half. Only 1 of every 6 high school students held a job this year, the lowest ratio in the near 30 year period for which such teen employment data are available. White high school students (21 percent) were more than twice as likely to work as Asians (8 percent) and Blacks (9 percent) and nearly twice as likely to do so as Hispanics (11 percent). Only 5-6 percent of low income Black and Hispanic high school students were able to obtain some employment this year.

The steep decline in employment during the high school years has a number of adverse consequences for the nation’s teens, especially those youth who will not go on to enroll full-time in a four year college upon graduation from high school. Teen employment is highly path dependent; the more a teen works in the current year, the more he will work in following years. Work experience in high school, especially during the regular school year, also facilities the transition to the labor market in the early year or two upon graduation and increases expected weekly wages. The impacts of substantive in-school work experience have been found to increase the annual earnings of high school graduates through at least their mid-20s, and work experience accumulated during the teenage years also has been found to increase the likelihood of young adults obtaining apprenticeship training and formal training from their employers in their early to mid-20s.

Substantially boosting in-school employment opportunities for the nation’s high school students should be assigned a major priority by the nation’s and states’ workforce development systems. Such programs would include an expansion of cooperative education programs and connecting activities of local WIA agencies linking high school students to private and public employers through paid internships and regular payroll slots. Job developers in such programs typically have been able to open up jobs for in-school youth in a wider array of industries and occupations than they could obtain through their own job search efforts. Some experimentation with employer wage subsidies focused on youth in targeted high schools/low income neighborhoods should be conducted to include more private sector involvement in the hiring of low income youth. Previous efforts to do so under the Youth Entitlement demonstrations of the late 1970s and 1980 were fairly successful.

The school-to-work transition, for the nation’s high school graduates who do not enroll in college in the fall immediately following graduation, has nearly completely broken down in recent years. In October 2009, only 45 percent of the non-college enrolled, new high school graduates from the Class of 2009 held any type of job, either part-time or full-time. This 45 percent employment rate was the lowest ever recorded in the 44-year history of such data. Of those graduates who were employed, only 42 percent held a full-time job.

Combining both of these results yields an abysmally low full-time employment/population ratio of only 19 percent for those graduates from the Class of 2009 who were not attending college in the fall. Again, this represented a new historical low for such graduates.

High school graduates not enrolling in college have not been on the radar screens of many educational administrators or policymakers or the media at the national, state, or local level. These youth need to be placed higher on the policy agenda. There are a variety of school-to-career programs (Career Academies, ProTech) and school-to-work transition programs (Jobs for America’s Graduates) that have prepared new high school graduates to transition successfully into the labor market or college upon graduation.

Such programs should be made more widely available to a greater number of students, especially low income and minority students, in the near future. Other programs aimed at integrating school and work at the post-secondary level, increasing the entry of graduates into youth apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeship, and providing greater financial incentives for young adults to work will be discussed in a future blog.