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The other unemployment crisis: Teenagers are being left out of the recovery

Tykeya Thomas, a High Point Central senior, had a hard enough time graduating, let along holding down a job. (Lydia DePillis/The Washington Post)

For most of the year, the broad main streets of High Point, N.C. are quiet and empty, much like any other faded post-industrial town. But for 10-day long stints twice a year, the empty showrooms fill with the latest upholstery fashions, and home furnishings buyers from around the world pack the town's few restaurants. That's the international furniture market: Still a huge economic driver, even after most factories have fled the area.

Back in the late 1990s, that would cause problems for Dwain Waddell, the dropout prevention coordinator at High Point Central High School -- students used to skip class to earn a few dollars boxing up purchases and shining shoes. But things have changed.

"They don't even do that anymore. I don't think the opportunities are there," says the bow-tied administrator, whose windowless office walls are covered with his victories -- pictures of kids who went on to graduate, rather than fading away. "It seems like because the adults need more work, they're occupying those jobs. And the furniture stores and factories have kind of gone down some, so there's probably not as much help needed."

From an educator’s perspective, kids staying in school is a good thing. But Waddell has put his finger on a bigger shift in the labor market that doesn't bode well for young people: Far fewer of them are working at all these days. The employment-to-population ratio for kids between 16 and 19 years old went from a high of 50 percent in 1978 to an all-time low of 25.6 percent in January 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and has only rebounded slightly since. That's dramatically worse than the employment rate for the population at large, which rose faster through the 1990s and didn't fall as far (it's now at 58.9 percent). While some of that may have to do with the fact that fewer kids are dropping out of high school to enter the workforce, a lot more of it comes from the fact that fewer jobs are available.

And having a job as a teen turns out to matter. A lot.

"They're also very important predictors of what happens when people become adults," says Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, who co-authored a report with scholars from the Brookings Institution on plummeting employment for young people. Not having a job as a teen is correlated with not having a job as a 20-something, which leads to depressed earnings over the long term -- bad news for the economy as a whole. For the last few years, economists have worried that today's youth are a "lost generation," doomed to own little and achieve less for the rest of their lives.

Teen joblessness isn't distributed equally: According to the Brookings analysis, it's worst in inner cities, areas with large populations of recent immigrants and areas where education levels are lowest. White people tend to be much better off than African Americans, and teens from high-income households more often had jobs than teens from low-income households. Accordingly, places like Omaha, Neb.; Des Moines, Iowa; and Ogden, Utah are doing all right.

High Point and neighboring Greensboro, though, are among the worst areas in the country: Teen employment in that metro area dropped from 43.8 percent in 2000 to 18.5 percent in 2012, the fourth lowest in the country. A closer look shows us where that comes from, what it means, and what -- if anything -- can be done to help.

The employment-population ratio for kids aged 16-19 has fallen off a cliff in recent years. (Bureau of Labor Statistics)
The employment-population ratio for kids aged 16-19 has fallen off a cliff in recent years. (Bureau of Labor Statistics)
The employment-to-population ratio for everybody over age 18. (Bureau of Labor Statistics)
The employment-to-population ratio for everybody over age 18. (Bureau of Labor Statistics)

The jobs gap

There's a heavy irony in the halls of High Point Central, a Collegiate Gothic edifice with gold-leaf titles on its classroom doors and an auditorium filled with hard wood seats. A local furniture magnate commissioned the school in 1926, wanting to give High Point the grandest educational institution in the state. For decades, the school pumped graduates into jobs in the textile mills and upholstery factories, which didn't require any more education to make a comfortable living.

But since the 1980s, those industries have nearly disappeared, as companies sought cheaper labor overseas. Some of the attendant retail has died as well; the town's main mall has all but closed. On top of that long-term structural decline, the recession dealt the area a staggering blow: Even as North Carolina gained employment during the 2000s, the "triad," as the Greensboro-High Point-Winston Salem region is known, lost 90,000 net jobs. That left a core of knowledge-intensive furniture design businesses in High Point, as well as some high-income professionals who prefer the suburbs to neighboring Greensboro. And then there’s everybody else.

High Point Central stands on the dividing line between two types of neighborhoods: To the north sit multi-million dollar homes and broad lawns, and to the south, there are blocks full of broken down cars and dilapidated bungalows. The school serves both of them, with AP and International Baccalaureate classes filled mostly with upper-income white kids, as well as a free and reduced price lunch program for which 70 percent of students qualify. But when it comes to side jobs, says Principal Bob Christina, there’s no way to bridge the gap.

“It appears that those who have resources are able to find jobs a little bit easier than the kids who come from the low income families that don't have the resources and the connections to get in,” says Christina, who works in a cluttered office just off the main attendance desk. “Students in poverty can't afford to have a job, because they have to help around the house. Buses don't run very often. So guess what? It's pretty tough for you to get a job as a youth in this area.”

The triad's economic development officials are starting to see glimmers of recovery. They speak proudly about the growing aviation industry, with Honda's new aircraft manufacturing facility and Timco, an airline services company. There's even the odd new furniture factory, like the Belgian Buzzispace, which recently announced it would start a production unit in an old High Point mill.

But if you're a young person, there are two problems with manufacturing's nascent return.

One: Advanced manufacturing is tougher to figure out than the 20th century version. Even old facilities are high-tech now, requiring some previous experience and specialized training. And in High Point, there are plenty of people who've been laid off over the last decade ready to shine up their skills and step into any jobs that come back.

Connie Smith, who runs human resources for a Japanese chemical company with a production facility in High Point, says her plant used to hire more kids right out of high school. Now, kids don't really cut it. "Our focus over the last 10 or more years has been to find skilled labor, and we're looking for folks who'd be able to run a control room," Smith says. "I don't think you're going to find the skills that they need right off the street."

And two: The industry that does come back doesn't bring with it as many jobs as it used to. Andrew Brod, a senior research fellow at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro's Center for Business and Economic Research, notes that the new activity isn't making up for what's been lost. "With the community colleges, there's been this laser-like focus on the challenges of worker retraining, and many textile workers can be retrained as biotech technicians," he says. "But that doesn't employ many people."

Those two factors have pushed older people who can't get re-hired down into the jobs that used to be the exclusive province of teens and young adults: Even fast food restaurants will often opt for a 55-year-old over a 17-year-old, if given the option. Nationally, a higher percentage of people over the age of 55 had jobs in 2011 than were working in 2000. "You're more likely to see a grandmother at the McDonald's window than a teenager," says Chris Payne, director of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro's Center for Youth and Family Partnerships. "It's really striking."

High Point Central High School, meanwhile, has a weakened war chest with which to combat the forces holding its students back. School funding has declined statewide for the past five years, increasing class sizes and stripping away extras like after-school tutoring and teacher training.

While some of the decrease in summer youth employment nationally comes from the fact that kids are doing more things to prepare for college -- like taking summer classes and doing internships -- there's also less money for government summer jobs programs, which used to get thousands of kids working when they might otherwise have nothing to do.

North Carolina's per-student funding in steep decline. (North Carolina Public Schools)
North Carolina's per-student funding in steep decline. (North Carolina Public Schools)

Lots of young people with nothing to do can pose serious problems. In the early 2000s, High Point had one of the highest murder rates in the state, fueled by drug markets and gang violence. A focused police intervention has cut down on crime, but there are still occasionally large youth brawls that have the city thinking about whether to impose a curfew.

Tom Jarrell, a district court judge who graduated from High Point Central in 1981 -- following his own father, and preceding his three sons -- has seen the school go from a place of relative socioeconomic equality to one where wealthy kids can find jobs and poor kids end up in court. He even helped start a juvenile drug court, one of just two in the state, to handle the caseload. "It's something we kind of invented," he says. "We seem to have a lot more children starting earlier with pot and alcohol, graduating to harder drugs."

High Point's civic leaders have tried to take control of the dual problem of a lifeless downtown and unoccupied youth by hiring Andreas Duany, the famed urban planner, to deliver a report on how the city might revitalize itself. Aaron Clinard, a local attorney who chairs the City Project, explains that young people are central to the new vision: The hoped-for new shops and restaurants would employ them, and the city's underused old industrial spaces could attract a new generation of creatives, rather than losing them to Asheville or Durham.

"'Makers,' I think he calls them," Clinard recalls Duany's directive, with vague optimism. "People who want to make things."

But while Clinard and the city's elected officials are trying to get young people to stick around, High Point Central's school administrators are telling them that if they want to succeed, they're going to want to leave.

"I just think High Point, we don't have the big corporations," says LaCrystal Horne, High Point Central's coordinator for the national non-profit Communities in Schools, meeting with a group of students. "That's why I encourage you to get out."

The manufacturing industry, once Greensboro-High Point's main source of jobs, has been cut in half since 1990. (Bureau of Labor Statistics)
The manufacturing industry, once Greensboro-High Point's main source of jobs, has been cut in half since 1990. (Bureau of Labor Statistics)

The poverty handicap

The availability of jobs is just one part of the employment picture, though. The other is the difficulty kids can have trying to keep a job if they do manage to get one.

For many, just making it out of high school is enough of a challenge. Late April is get-kids-to-walk time at High Point Central. "I'm just dealing with some kids who're fixing to not graduate if they don't get their butts in gear," explains Christina, the principal, who brings seniors into his office for small group meetings to badger them into it.

"Quit chasing girls! Don't get married till you're 30! Tell her you love her and you'll see her in 10 years! And stay away from that boyfriend, he's too old for you!" Christina tells two boys and a girl, after going through the classes they'd need to turn around before getting their diplomas. "Twenty-seven days! Twenty-seven!" he yells after them, as they sheepishly make their way back to class.

The girl's name is Tykeya Thomas, an 18-year-old with short coiffed hair and gentle, jet black eyes. She's held two jobs. One was over the summer at Goodwill, as part of a county program that offered classes in conjunction with part-time employment. Later, she scored a job at KFC, but quit when she said her pay never showed on the debit card the chain used to distribute wages.

"It's hard getting jobs at fast food restaurants, because it's competition," she says. "You've got people who've got masters degrees and stuff. My manager, he didn't want to hire more people. So when they called, he'd say there wasn't any more room. And there wasn't a lot of us. Older people were pulling double shifts trying to make extra money."

Late April is also get-kids-into-summer-jobs time, but down in the counseling office, staff have handed out only a handful of the forms everybody needs to start work. Part of the problem is that teens -- and especially low-income teens -- all look for work in the same places: the fast food restaurants, grocery stores, and malls where they eat and shop. The ones who land jobs usually have some sort of personal connection, like a friend or a relative, whom they can ask for an interview. But they don't always think to look in the places they don't have access to, like nursing homes or country clubs.

Thomas, like many students in poverty, has further complications. Job hunting was particularly difficult because of a larceny charge that she says she picked up while in a group of kids who shoplifted. Her father went to prison when she was little, and her mother put her into foster care six years ago. Her foster mom has other small children she needs to take care of while juggling work and school. She doesn't have a computer at home, so she'd have to get to school early to finish homework. The buses run only occasionally, and she doesn't have a car, so making everything run on time proved too much.

"When I was working, I had to come home, get ready for work, make sure somebody was able to get them, and I started getting to work late, because I needed to make sure they had a ride," Thomas says, of the little kids she calls her cousins.

To make matters worse, Thomas got pregnant in February -- just like her mother, who'd given birth to her older brother as a 12th grader as well. The father, a boy who was one year ahead of her in school, already has another child in Florida, and is working as a part-time temp in the local Ralph Lauren distribution center.According to Thomas, he doesn't seem interested in raising the child with her, but she seems unperturbed. She's got a plan: She'll attend Livingstone College in the fall, because they have good accommodations for single mothers, and study to be a nurse. Then, maybe, she'll join the Navy and be a pharmacist, and leave her baby with her mother.

"I stay focused now, because I know I have to do this for my baby. I'm more encouraged," Thomas says, sitting on her foster mother's front porch, looking across the street at guys blasting music from their steps. "At least I get to give my child what I didn't have growing up. At least I get to teach them, you need an education to get anywhere. Because I know for a fact that in High Point, it's always competition. If you don't apply for a job and keep calling and calling, you're not going to get that job. Because the economy is hard."

It's as if she's already given up her own chance at advancement, and the baby was already the one who might do what she couldn't. But it's Friday, and Thomas hopped up to catch a ride to meet up with friends, still a child herself for just a little longer.

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.



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