The youth labor force is defined as youth age 16 to 24 that are working or actively looking for work.  Employment during these years is an important step in completing the transition to adulthood and plays a crucial role in the career development process.  Youth employment promotes responsibility, independence, and social integration.  It provides practical knowledge and enhances basic skills, such as how to fill out a job application, how to complete tax forms, and what constitutes acceptable workplace behavior.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in July 2009, 19.3 million 16- to 24-year-olds were employed.  However, the number of unemployed youth at that same time was 4.4 million, up nearly 1.0 million from July 2008.  Furthermore, there were large disparities in the unemployment rates for youth by race.  In July 2009, the unemployment rates for whites, Hispanics, and blacks were 16.4 percent, 21.7 percent, and 31.2 percent, respectively.  These disparities are of particular concern given the negative effects youth unemployment can have on social development.  In fact, the Youth Employment Network states that long-term youth unemployment can generate frustration and low self-esteem, and can lead to increased vulnerability among some young people to drugs, disease, and crime.  There is evidence that unemployment can expose youth to greater risks of lower future wages and longer unemployment periods as adults.

Given both the positive benefits of youth employment and the negative effects of youth unemployment, it is crucial that we provide our youth with appropriate employment opportunities.  Overwhelmingly, the jobs youth have access to are in the service and retail industries which remain two of the fastest growing sectors.  These jobs often help youth develop general job skills, develop basic people skills, and foster teamwork.  However, it is important that in the industries most accessible to youth there are avenues for career development and advancement.  Additionally, many youth are now seeking internships or volunteer opportunities in order to gain the experience that will help them excel in various employment fields.  Although these internships may provide a more valuable experience than the typical teen job, they are often unpaid, which means they are not a realistic option for the youth who are working to help support their families or to cover their own expenses.

In the spring of 2009, in an effort to provide Missouri teens with exposure to and experience in high-tech, high-paying career fields, Governor Nixon launched the Next Generation Jobs Team program.  This program was funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and provided over 7,200 young Missourians with valuable work experience in the summer of 2009.  Additionally, in February 2010, Governor Nixon announced the 2010 Missouri State Parks Youth Corps Initiative.  This initiative will put more than 1,000 youth to work in Missouri State Parks in the summer of 2010 and will not only help youth develop leadership skills that will prepare them for success in future careers, but will also foster an appreciation for the environment and “green” concepts.  Both of these initiatives came at a critical juncture as many youth are currently having difficulty finding positions in an extremely tight job market.  However, one must keep in mind that while these initiatives provided thousands of summer jobs specifically for Missouri’s youth there were still thousands of youth unable to find employment.  Furthermore, neither of these initiatives are permanent, on-going youth employment programs.  Given the expected budget shortfalls and without ARRA funding it is unlikely that Missouri will provide initiatives like these for Missouri youth in the upcoming years.

In the St. Louis area, there are a number of career high schools that are combining education with practical job skills in order to better prepare students for colleges and careers.  Clyde C. Miller Career Academy provides students with a rigorous academic program and exposure to more than 10 different career fields.  Construction Careers Center is focused on preparing students for careers in construction, and construction applications are integrated throughout the academic curriculum.  Technical Education of St. Louis Countyoperates two technical high schools that offer a total of 35 technical programs.  All of these high schools strive to provide students with hands-on job experience and classroom activities that directly apply to future careers.  And while these schools have made career training an explicit objective, it is important that all high schools in the St. Louis region adequately prepare youth to achieve successful careers.

Youth employment plays a critical role in both social development and future job attainment.  It is important that youth are provided with employment opportunities that will arm them against a shifting job market and expose them to various career paths.  Furthermore, it is important that all youth, not just the privileged, are provided with information about the options available to them after high school.  Conversely, we need to insure that it is not just “at-risk” youth who are being steered toward certain education and career options.  We need strong partnerships between the schools, the business community, and post-secondary institutions to ensure that all our youth have opportunities for decent employment options, now and in the future.