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VOL. 126 | NO. 163 | Monday, August 22, 2011

Need Not Apply

Memphis youths face all-time high for teen unemployment

By Andy Meek

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If America’s busted housing market is the ghost of recession past, then teenagers flipping burgers, selling clothes at the local mall or filling internships are in danger of becoming the ghosts of that downturn’s future.

For most people, the recession’s ugly scars don’t need to be pointed out. Reminders are plentiful in the form of unfinished subdivisions, empty homes, shrinking paychecks and foreclosed dreams.

The stock market is bobbing erratically. And like the cash-strapped consumer whose credit score has fallen, so has the rating on U.S. government debt, which throws a new sheen of uncertainty over government operations and whatever lies ahead for both Corporate America and Main Street USA.

All of which is why it might be easy to overlook the shadow the Great Recession is casting over America’s youth. Teenagers don’t own homes with plummeting property values, they aren’t worried about 401(k)s, and taxes are something for other people to pay. Nevertheless, if the unemployment rate in Memphis looks high – in June it was 10.9 percent – consider that for U.S. teenagers age 16-19, the jobless rate was more than double that figure in June.

The unemployment rate for the country’s teens hit 24.5 percent in June, according to numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Government officials like to talk about hitting upon the magic formula that brings “escape velocity” to the economy. They are scrambling to enact the right policy moves that result in self-sustaining reboots of the government, companies and consumers.

Yet it’s hard to be rosy about that prospect when the BLS statistics suggest one in four teens can’t find a job, delaying their natural progression into and up through the workforce. And unless the public and private sectors step up their confrontation of that problem, the country may taste the bitter fruit of this recession for a long time, said Dr. John Gnuschke, director of the Sparks Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Memphis.

“When Memphis has strong job growth, you’ll see ‘Help Wanted’ signs in all the restaurants and places like that,” Gnuschke said. “And that’s a good thing, because that creates job opportunities for anybody who wants to work. But this environment has not created those kinds of job opportunities. And it stifles any kind of recovery – really postpones it. It means we could go for a long period of time with young people finding it difficult to get a job.”

Tennessee was among the 20 states with the highest rate of unemployment among 16-year-olds to 19-year-olds in May, according to some number crunching by the Washington-based Employment Policies Institute.

As calculated by EPI using a 12-month average along with data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the teen unemployment rate in Tennessee in May was 26.9 percent. The rate of “discouraged” teen workers – those who don’t have a job and who’ve stopped looking for one – was 27.4 percent.

“The dilemma when you can’t find that first job is that the acquisition of job skills is postponed,” Gnuschke said. “And if you postpone that for any length of time, it can be devastating to your long-term career path. By the time you’re 22 or so, you should have the accumulated work skills, a completed education or some of both. If you don’t, you put yourself at a disadvantage.

“And it’s a disadvantage that can last a lifetime. It’s very difficult to catch up with people when someone has 10 years of work experience and you have five, and you want the same job.”

That job environment is likely to mean more parents, if they aren’t already, will be doing what Beth Sanders early on encouraged her two girls to do.

If the unemployment rate in Memphis looks high – in June it was 10.9 percent – consider that for U.S. teenagers age 16-19, the jobless rate was more than double that figure in June.

Sanders, vice president of marketing and communications for Memphis tech startup StiQRd, said she always prodded her daughters – who are now 19 and 22 – to pursue work or volunteer activities that point toward their future goals and which do more than “feed an expensive latte habit or bankroll another trip to the mall.”

“If paid opportunities are scarce, related volunteer work can be a worthwhile investment of time, as it demonstrates passion for a particular area of interest and provides professional experience that may be more beneficial in the long run than cash,” Sanders said. “Experience that is pertinent or transferable to a preferred field of study, combined with community involvement, creates a well-rounded candidate.”

In this photo taken earlier this summer, Kristina Zywicki, 19, serves up ice cream as Lola Rouff, 3, watches at Moomer's in Traverse City, Mich. The summertime blues are alive and well for thousands of teenagers in Michigan, Memphis and throughout the U.S. as they face a tough job market this year despite some improvement from a year ago.

(Photo: AP/Jan-Michael Stump)

In normal times, a bit of teenage rebellion – showing up late for work or even displaying a lack of interest in landing that first job – might come with the parental territory. These days, though, the stakes are higher both for the teenager who needs to develop those job skills and for the parents who need to encourage their kids early and make sure the lessons stick.

Attorney Jenny Kiesewetter has tried to mold her two children, ages 13 and 15, with that mindset. For example, if they went on a family vacation, the kids had to find ways to earn $100 or $200 to take on the trip.

“That money would be used toward a specific activity so they could appreciate how it was being used, as opposed to being trickled away on food, drinks, cabs and the like,” she said.

That’s led them to today earning money from mom by doing jobs around the house.

“They are not afraid of hard work, and I encourage it,” Kiesewetter said. “I want them to know that hard work will advance them in life.”

A deep-rooted work ethic instilled early coupled with a bit of creativity in looking for internships and other first jobs are among what Gnuschke says is the recipe for success for youngsters in this job market.

“In many low-wage jobs, there are incredibly high turnover rates, so the employer that wasn’t hiring this week may well be hiring next week,” he said. “So you’ve just got to keep after it. Perseverance really does pay in this environment.”

Getting an early start also is as important as bringing an A-game.

Angela Wallace, marketing director for YMCA of Memphis and the Mid-South, said that organization has employee needs every summer.

“And the best time to start reaching out to a Y for a summer job is in March,” she said. “If you get close to Spring Break, you need to already be thinking about a summer job. Especially because we use that Spring Break time to hold a lot of (employee) classes.”

As teens begin to try to position themselves, organizations likely to take on extra importance include those like the City of Memphis Youth Ambassadors Program and the Memphis Youth Career Development Program.

The MYCDP is an eight-week summer employment program for kids age 14 to 18. It was born out of a partnership with the Greater Memphis Chamber and Cummins, Inc.

Skills the youngsters are helped with include resume writing, financial management, effective communication and more. The program started last year with 18 students and this summer went up to 60 students. The goal for next year is to have enough funding for 100 students.

Meanwhile, the city youth program is a year-round enrichment effort that targets young people in grades 10, 11 and 12, and its mission is to get those kids ready for employment success and also teach them how to be well-rounded adults. The kids are paid a regular stipend based on participation and attendance. It has four core values: education, health, civic/social responsibility and employability.

“We work on those four core values throughout the year,” said James Nelson, special assistant for youth services with the city of Memphis. “Our goal is to nurture them, really becoming like their surrogate parents and keeping them on task. We meet Monday through Thursday during the school year. We sit down with them each month and do a road map, which is simply establishing goals and objectives.

“Our goal is to help them obtain whatever their career choice is. Our goal is to work with them from this point, wherever they are, going forward until they graduate from high school.”

Nelson said the majority of teenagers in the program come from single-parent homes. They have to have at least a 2.0 grade point average to participate.

During the summer, the program has a leadership camp designed to help further mold its young participants.

“It’s gratifying to me when we get employers who call us and say we were just going to use one of the kids for the summer, but we want to hire them, so that while they’re in college they can have a job working here,” Nelson said. “It’s gratifying to know we’ve helped mold and shape some young people into mature adults and we’ve put them on a path to success.”

PROPERTY SALES 93 424 6,970
MORTGAGES 42 281 4,410
BUILDING PERMITS 196 704 16,619
BANKRUPTCIES 38 174 3,570