Fewer teens are even attempting to look for jobs

On first glance, things are looking good for America’s teen workers. But a deeper dive shows that the country’s economic recovery could be leaving this group behind.

The unemployment rate for people between the ages of 16 and 19 dropped to 13.2% in July, according to data released Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s down from 13.3% in June and 15.6% a year ago. In July, the overall unemployment rate was 4.3%, a 16-year low.

With the labor market continuing to make steady improvements, talk has cropped up about the economy approaching full employment — but that’s far from the case for teenagers. While the unemployment rate has lowered steadily for this age group, that doesn’t mean that more teenagers are getting jobs. Rather, experts say it is a sign of young people dropping out of the workforce.

The labor-force participation rate, a measure of the share of people with jobs or looking for employment, was 35% for teens in July. Comparatively in 2000, when the U.S. economy last came close to achieving full employment, the labor-force participation rate for this group was nearly 53%. “This has been a slow jobs recovery, and teens are always at the bottom of the labor market queue,” said Paul Harrington, an education professor and director of the Center for Labor Markets and Policy at Drexel University.

So what are these young people doing if they aren’t working? First, the good news: Many of them are going to school. Many high-school students are turning to summer classes and community service to pad college applications, Harrington said. And over time, the number of people going to college has climbed.

While on the surface school seems like a fine trade-off for work, it could have consequences down the road. Summer and part-time jobs that teenagers historically worked help build skills needed for future employment. There’s one school of thought that work is a substitute for school, and that kids who have to work are worse off than those who can go to school instead, Harrington said. But he says that’s not always the case. “Work is a strong complement for going to school. It predicts improved employment experiences and higher wages and reduces the likelihood of future unemployment.”

And many high school graduates who don’t attend college are unemployed — particularly if they live in an area with a high poverty rate or if their parents are unemployed. High-poverty areas often have fewer jobs available, and unemployed parents won’t be able to offer their children a network of potential employers for a first job.

Additionally, many of the lower-paying jobs in retail and food service that used to be taken by teenagers are now held by older workers, including those past retirement age, Harrington said. Particularly in lower-skilled jobs, behavioral traits and social skills, such as showing up to work on time or having years of experience interacting with customers, become more important. “Those skills matter and older workers have them,” Harrington said.

State and local laws regarding employment and wages can also have a negative effect on teen workers. Nearly every state has some restriction on how late at night teenagers can work, so employers might not hire a high schooler if they need an evening shift covered. And minimum wage hikes also may prevent young people from getting jobs by effectively pricing them out, since employers will want more skills for the money they pay their staff.

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