Tomorrow’s Economic Crisis Is Today’s Youth Unemployment Crisis

fast food 300x200This week, I participated in a webinar sponsored by the National Center for College and Career Transitions (NC3T). The discussion, led by Paul Harrington, a renowned labor market economist put a spotlight on the prospects for young people in the current labor market.

The bad news is that youth (ages 16 through 24) don’t do well when the labor market is tight. Indeed, they are among the first fired when the economy goes south, and the last hired when the economy recovers. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, last year’s unemployment rate was 7.4 percent, yet unemployment for people ages 16 to 19 and 20 to 24 years old was three and two times that! More than 2.1 million young people (ages 16 to 24) wanted to work last year, yet couldn’t get a job.

What jobs did you do when you were 16 to 24? Let’s see … I started my career working at Chuck E. Cheese in occupations including “entertainment and hospitality,” (translation: I dressed up in the rat costume), food prep and cashier at the trading post., My summer working at Chuck E. Cheese taught me the importance of showing up on time. I learned the hard way that a bad attitude can easily result in several weeks of dressing up in a hot rat costume to be accosted by sugar-buzzed children chaperoned by exhausted parents. I took those lessons, experiences and skills with me to my next job working at a men’s clothing store, and my next job, and the next and the next. …

I’ll be totally honest; my happiest day working at Chuck E. Cheese was the last day I worked at Chuck E. Cheese! But in reflection, I was lucky to get the opportunity to work there. Because millions of young people today aren’t getting the same opportunity to gain work experience and learn skills on the job that they will use throughout their career.

Perhaps Winston Churchill put it best when he said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” It’s no different today. The federal decision-making process is profoundly driven by crisis. Unfortunately, persistent youth unemployment fails to get policymakers’ attention because so many of their adult constituents are struggling during this fragile recovery and because youth don’t vote.

Yet youth unemployment is indeed a serious problem with even more serious implications. In the next 5 to 10 years, millions of today’s unemployed young people could make up tomorrow’s unemployed adults—a jobless generation that lacks the skills and experiences needed to find and succeed in the jobs that American businesses, communities and the economy will need to flourish.

While we hope that policymakers will take action to address today’s youth unemployment crisis, much can be done in communities in the meantime. Stakeholders, including educators, employers and businesses, and community-based organizations like Goodwill can form and enhance partnerships that aim to provide their young people with the education, skills and experiences that they will use for a lifetime.