Young Job Seekers Struggling in a Sputtering Economy•
Rick Foster, Staff Writer
Even in a slowly improving economy, many teens and young college graduates are finding only frustration in their efforts to begin meaningful careers.
A recently released study by the Opportunity Nation Coalition noted that 6 million Americans between 16 and 24 are neither working nor in school full time – an indication of a growing opportunity gap for young people that shows few signs of improvement.
But in spite of the odds, young adults like Mario Serevino of Pawtucket and Katherine Verdan of Attleboro are taking advantage of educational programs set up by area high schools and colleges to help connect them with future careers.
Serevino, who dropped out of school in the eighth grade, came back to enroll in night school at age 24 after years spent supporting his girlfriend and young daughter through a series of warehouse jobs.
While he’s grateful to be employed, Serevino, a student at Attleboro High School’s Evening Diploma Program, says he envisions a future beyond moving boxes and stacking supplies.
“A lot of the jobs I worked at paid $10 to $14 an hour, and if you were making $14, that was the top,” he said. “That’s not how I see my future.”
Serevino, an accomplished weightlifter and health enthusiast, says it’s important to him to finish his high school diploma and further his education.
Ideally, he looks forward to a career as a personal trainer.
Verdan, whose high school career was interrupted by a serious illness, is also back studying for a diploma and wants to go on to college to prepare for a career in human resources.
“This is a great opportunity for kids like me,” said Verdan, 18, who plans to graduate in May. “Education is very important to me and something I value a lot.”
High school dropouts aren’t the only ones struggling in the job market.
Kelly Lynch, who works at a local mentoring agency as part of a federally supported program, graduated from the Unversity of Massachusetts this spring.
She’s done some internships and waitressing jobs, but is contemplating going back to school for a master’s degree to pursue her long-term goal of working for the government in a public policy role.
“It’s tough out there,” said Lynch, 23, who helps promote mentoring programs for young people at On Common Ground in Attleboro. “Most of my friends are still living at home.”
Educators and economists say a number of factors are erecting barriers to opportunity for young wage earners: a struggling economy, the loss of millions of entry-level jobs overseas, declines in state support for higher education and a mismatch between graduates’ skills and those needed by business.
Erik Baumann of Bristol Community College’s Gateway to College program, part of a national network that seeks to lure high school dropouts and others back to class, said young Americans are finding employment opportunities scarce in an economy only slowly recovering from the 2007-2009 recession. Many of the jobs that are available now require specialized skills that many young working people lack.
“The economy has had a huge effect on young people both economically and socially,” said Baumann, whose network specializes in bringing high school dropouts and others whose education has been interrupted back to campuses.
“Many find that it’s a vicious cycle: They can’t get the jobs because they don’t have the skills, and they can’t get the skills because they can’t afford the education,” he said.
Gateway to College, which has 40 sites throughout the country, partners with local school districts to help dropouts and under-prepared college students finish their high school diplomas and move on to earn marketable skills.
The recession played havoc with states’ job training and youth employment programs that have only recently begun to return pre-2007 funding levels, said Luc Schuster, deputy director of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.
State support for higher education remains about 25 percent lower than 2001 when adjusted for inflation, Schuster said.
As of July, 16.3 percent of Americans ages 16 to 24 were unemployed according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That contrasts with an overall unemployment rate of 7.4 percent.
Youth employment peaked during the 1980s when the economy still contained large numbers of low- and semi-skilled starter jobs, but has declined steadily ever since, according to government reports.
Youth unemployment steadily climbed during the recession, according to the website governing.com, reaching a peak of 19.6 percent in April 2010.
Unemployment among the young has slowly declined over the past three years but remains well above the national rate.
Many youth gave up their job search or went back to school as employment opportunities disappeared. Factoring in those who withdrew from the labor force, youth unemployment is even higher.
Not only that, among young people who have jobs, many are only working part-time. According to The Young Invincibles, an organization that advocates for economic opportunity for youth, only 47 percent of those who are working have full-time jobs. That’s down from 50 percent in 2005.
In addition, the median wage for workers 25 to 34 has decreased by almost $1,000 since 2005.
Changing those negative trends for young job seekers will require education and investment in the future, says BCC’s Baumann.
“It’s rather like a ship that takes some time to turn around,” he said.
But finding answers is imperative to both the future of young people and the economy, said Mark Edwards, executive director of Opportunity Nation.
“This is not a group that we can write off. They just need a chance,” said Edwards, who heads the coalition of businesses, advocacy groups, policy experts and nonprofit organizations dedicated to increasing economic mobility.
“The tendency is to see them as lost souls and see them as unsavable,” he said. “They are not.”
Solutions won’t be easy, the Opportunity Nation study indicates.
The coalition also reported that 49 states have seen an increase in the number of families living below the poverty line, and 45 states have seen household median incomes fall in the last year.
The report also shows that a young person’s community is often closely linked with his or her success. The Opportunity Nation report tracked 16 factors, such as Internet access, college graduation rates and income inequality to help identify states that were performing best for young people.
Topping the list of supportive states are Vermont, Minnesota and North Dakota.
Massachusetts ranked seventh on the list, behind Iowa. Nevada, Mississippi and New Mexico were at the bottom.
For those living in states with few resources, the likelihood of young people succeeding could be less, the study indicates.
“Their destiny is too often determined by their ZIP code,” said Charlie Mangiardi, who works with Year Up, a nonprofit that trains young adults for careers and helps them find jobs.
“We have the supply. We don’t have a lack of young people who need this opportunity,” Mangiardi said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.