The Kids Are Not Alright

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By CHERY SABOL for the Missoula Job Service

While older workers may emerge battle-weary from the recession and its aftermath of unemployment, some analysts and economists are wondering if the youngest members of the work force will come out permanently scarred.

In an article titled, “The Kids Are Not Alright” in the July 5 issue of the NationalJournal, writer Niraj Chokshi looks at the long-term effects on Americans ages 16 to 24 whose unemployment rate is now over 16 percent, up from over 10 percent at the start of 2007. Chokshi cites studies that show that early unemployment can affect workers’ earning potential for decades and leave them less satisfied with their jobs and their lives later in life.

Youth Unemployment. The Kids Are Not Alright by Chery Sabol“Being unemployed young can reduce earnings by as much as 20 percent for up to two decades, and those who are jobless early in their careers also end up less satisfied with the work they do find later in life. Unemployment before age 23 can lower life satisfaction for as much as two decades, and being out of work early on can reduce self-reported health rankings for decades,” Chokshi wrote.

It’s an issue that Barbara Wagner has been pondering. She is an economist at the Montana Department of Labor and Industry’s Research and Analysis Bureau. She and colleagues nationwide have been discussing the causes and effects of youth unemployment.

The cause, Wagner believes, is partly attributable to the recession and fewer available jobs. But, “Nationally, youth labor-force participation has been down” in a long-term trend. It is her belief that fewer students are working jobs as high school students.

In Missoula, according to 2011 Census information, the unemployment rate for youths ages 16 to 19 was over 20 percent. For those ages 20-24, the number was nearly 15 percent. Those rates were three to four times higher than the rates for older workers.

The result can be an impact on lifetime earnings, as other analysts have documented, Wagner said. But it’s also taking a toll on business as they deal with a “skills shortage” in younger workers. Her impression from her own office is that college graduates are coming to work with sharp technical skills and a solid training in economics. But lacking the high-school jobs that have traditionally been training grounds for workplace basics, “their skills are not having time to develop.”

Photo by Seth Dickens via FlickrIt is the shortage of “soft skills” of workplace etiquette and ethics that makes businesses complain, she said. Breaches such as not reliably reporting to work on time, just not showing up instead of calling in sick, difficulty in meeting deadlines, or failing to keep a boss abreast of progress on a project are the problems that Wagner and others discuss. Such basic work skills were more evident just 10 years ago, she said.

It’s easy to surmise that workers who lack those skills will have a hard time keeping a job or advancing to better jobs. But Wagner said she prefers to not focus on the negative, but to look for solutions instead.

“I don’t think it’s an unsolvable problem,” she said. “Businesses can take steps to train employees in a different way.” That means that instead of taking for granted that a young employee will know that it’s expected to notify the boss on a sick day, employers must spell out those basic expectations as part of the job.

The importance of businesses making adjustments now is crucial, according to a 2010 discussion paper written and researched by two world economists, David N.F. Bell

David G. Blanchflower. Their findings: “Solving youth unemployment is the most pressing problem governments are facing today. Not dealing with the problem of high, and rising levels of youth unemployment hurts the youngsters themselves and has potentially severe consequences for us all for many years to come. The time to act is now. The young must be the priority.”

DISCUSSION: What was the most important thing you learned at your first job?


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Chery Sabol is an employment consultant at the Missoula Job Service, an organization that offers programs and services to assist employers and job seekers alike. Those looking for employment can view job openings on our job board, website, and social media outlets. Employment consultants provide résumé reviews, conduct practice interviews, and offer skills testing.

The Job Service also provides a self-service area where job seekers have access to phones, a fax machine, a copier, and computers. Our qualified staff also offers business consulting services, including employee recruitment and retention assistance. Additionally, we provide financial support for businesses looking to train both new and current employees.

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