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Teen employment is falling: Future workforce may be ill equipped for the basics

Cody Warbalon, 17, of Cloquet adds fries to an order at Gordy's Hi Hat in Cloquet recently. Clint Austin / Forum News Service

For high school students, having a job is less a rite of passage than a novelty these days.

In Minnesota and across the country, fewer teenagers are working despite all sorts of opportunities to pick up that first paycheck. And without early job experiences, the workforce of tomorrow may not be equipped with workplace basics.

"That's not necessarily technical skills so much as soft skills — things like the ability to resolve conflicts at work, knowing how to conduct yourself as a professional in the workplace," said Joe Mahon, regional economist with the Minneapolis Federal Reserve. "There's pretty persuasive evidence that part-time employment among high school students has positive effects on later career outcomes."

Since the turn of the century, Minnesota teenagers have dropped out of the workforce by the thousands. Statewide, the teenage population has fallen slightly since 2000. As the number of jobs has grown, the rate of teenagers working or looking for work has fallen.

"There's no doubt many of the jobs in the economy are those lower-skill, entry-level jobs which would seem perfect for a young person to start their career," said Erik White, regional labor analyst with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Studies show young workers feel increasingly unprepared to enter the workforce after high school or college, and employers tend to agree. Yet researchers haven't been able to pinpoint exactly why fewer teens are working or even looking for work, though an increased focus on school and competition from displaced older workers may play a role.

With fewer classmates working, White speculated there's less peer pressure to get a job, too.

"There's hope that now with this tight labor market and jobs available, having jobs can be cool again," he said.

Summer jobs

In the summer of 2000, about 40 percent of Minnesota teenagers were working, according to Census figures. By the summer of 2016, the rate had fallen to 28 percent.

Nationally, teen worker rates have fallen from 45 to 20 percent since 2000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

One theory holds that higher minimum wages have "priced some teenagers out of the labor market," since employers now may want to spend that money on more experienced applicants, researchers David Neumark and Cortnie Shupe wrote in a Mercatus Center paper earlier this year. They also speculated that a renewed focus on getting ahead via college could have played a role.

With low-wage jobs abundant and unemployment rates at record lows, it might be a more obvious reason: Some students simply don't want or need to work.

Not every teenager has the work ethic of Tori Leppi, who started slinging coffee and ice cream at Gordy's Warming House in Cloquet, Minn. last year. The 17-year-old said the job has honed the interpersonal skills she'll need to go on to be an X-ray technician. And though lots of her friends have found work without trouble, Leppi notices plenty staying on the sidelines.

"I think the reason people aren't working is they don't want to — they want to have free time," she said. "Which I get, but I feel like you have to work to have free time."


All play and no work makes young people less employable down the line, experts say.

The need for soft skills like critical thinking, communication, time management and teamwork is on the rise — or rather the need has always been there, and young workers increasingly lack these skills.

Managers say just half of recent college graduates are ready to jump into a career, according to a 2016 survey from PayScale. It's the soft skills like problem-solving and attention to detail that are lacking the most, the advising firm says, while the biggest technical skills lacking are writing proficiency and public speaking.

In his book "Bridging the Soft Skills Gap," Bruce Tulgan writes that "people are hired because of their hard skills, but people are fired because of their soft skills."

Which all means that learning how to get along with co-workers and showing up on time could have major implications at the start of someone's career.

Although it might be better to learn those lessons before there are bills to pay, there is a worry students might overextend themselves and see their grades slip if they work during the school year. Yet the benefits of having a job while in high school appear to outweigh perceived drawbacks like spending less time on homework.

"Part-time employment during the school year doesn't seem to have a detrimental impact," said Mahon at the Minneapolis Fed. "Some of the studies that have been done show that teenagers who work part time don't spend any less time doing homework."

Other research shows that early work experience leads to higher wages and a higher likelihood of being employed at all in adulthood, Mahon said.

Brooks Johnson

Brooks is an investigative/enterprise reporter and business columnist at the Duluth News Tribune.

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