We are in the midst of a youth employment crisis. Employment among teens in Massachusetts has dropped by nearly half since the late 1990s, from 54 percent in 1999 to just 27 percent in 2013. About half of today’s high school students have not had any job experience, leaving these young people at a significant disadvantage in the future. The Center for American Progress estimated that nearly 1 million young people experiencing long-term unemployment during the Great Recession will lose more than $20 billion in earnings over the following ten years, or $22,000 per person. This loss of income affects not only the individual but also the entire U.S. economy through lower consumer spending, resulting in slower growth and fewer jobs created.
For teenagers and young adults, getting a job is more difficult, especially if you are a person of color or live in a low-income community. Commonwealth Corporation and the Center for Labor Markets & Policy at Drexel University surveyed and interviewed employers in Massachusetts and Philadelphia to understand what was behind the changes in employer hiring preferences. It turns out that while employers see value in the technology and “hard” skills young people have to offer, they perceive their work behaviors (attendance, punctuality, quit rates) as inferior to the work behaviors of adults. Employers also reported that many youth are not prepared to face employer screening processes and testing for entry-level positions. Young people often do not realize the signals they send through their actions and behaviors put employers off and harm their hiring prospects. For example, some behaviors that can hurt their chances include poor eye contact, sloppy dress, or texting while interacting with hiring personnel.
Paul Harrington, an economist at Drexel University who has studied the youth labor market, notes, “If kids don’t work when they’re young, a lot of the behavioral traits that are important just don’t get developed down the road. These are the ages when you’re making these huge decisions about where you’re going to end up in life.”
Studies show that early work experience pays off. Teens who work 20 hours or less a week during high school have 22 percent greater annual earnings later in their career than those who do not. Teens with early work experience also tend to find future work in higher-level occupations and have access to employer-provided health insurance and pension plans. In addition, teens who have longer duration, low-intensity (fewer than 20 hours per week) employment experiences during school are also more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than students who do not work.
The dramatic decline in teen and young adult employment is happening at a time in which Massachusetts workers are older and aging more rapidly than U.S. workers as a whole. As older workers exit the workforce, employers will be faced with a shortage of skilled workers. Employers will only be able to find the workers they need to grow and keep our economy strong if young people are given opportunities early on to learn the skills and behaviors that employers expect.
Employers in our survey also reported that with the exception of career and technical high schools, many workforce development and education providers are themselves disconnected from the labor market and do not understand how hiring decisions are made. Employers value long-term relationships with schools and workforce programs so that they can better prepare young people to be career-ready.
To address this, Commonwealth Corporation works with workforce and education partners, along with local employers, to strengthen work readiness training and connections to local employers. We are piloting Signaling Success in high schools in Malden and Lowell and an alternative education program in Boston. Signaling Success is a new, comprehensive curriculum that enhances teens’ aptitude for collaboration, communication, dependability, and initiative – core skills for success in work, school, and life. In addition, the pilot programs include subsidized employment opportunities where students can demonstrate the soft skills they learned in the classroom. The goal is to support teens in finding unsubsidized employment after being well-prepared through the classroom and on-the-job experiences for what employers expect. We have also reinforced employability skill development in the YouthWorks summer jobs program by requiring 20 hours of a hands-on, competency based work readiness curriculum, the creation of a portfolio and a transition plan to help young people move from subsidized jobs to finding and keeping an unsubsidized job.
If you are an employer who feels committed to preparing tomorrow’s workforce, please contact us. Your partnership is critical to the development and execution of strategies that boost the employment prospects and success of teens and young adults.