Tough job market for young adults

Simone Knighten is hunting for a job. Hunting and hunting.

The 20-year-old Baltimore resident thinks it's harder now than when she landed work at restaurants in the past two years. She's spending days at one of the city's Youth Opportunity centers, getting help with her search.


"I've been looking since January," said Knighten, sitting in the West Baltimore building with brightly painted walls. "I've been going all around, calling back and everything, but it didn't seem like anything was working, so that's why I came here. Because obviously I felt like I wasn't doing something right."

A new report from the Washington-based Brookings Institution finds that many people in their teens and early 20s are similarly stuck, here and nationally.


The job market is so terrible for young adults — and has been now for years — that it's reached crisis proportions, said study co-author Andrew Sum.

"The bottom fell out," said Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. "We should be terribly concerned. … You have a lot of people who are losing opportunities to build their work experience."

The numbers tell the story.

In 2000, 43 percent of residents ages 16 to 19 in Baltimore and its suburbs had jobs, according to Brookings. That figure slumped to just under 32 percent — less than a third — by 2012, the most recent regional numbers the think tank analyzed.


Locals 20 to 24, prime working age, took a sizable hit as well. Not quite 65 percent were employed in 2012, down from nearly 71 percent a dozen years earlier.

Many older residents have struggled to find work, too. But as a group, the Baltimore area's 25-plus crowd was employed at a slightly higher rate in 2012 than in 2000, Brookings said.

It's a nationwide problem, which is why economists fear Millennials will be the first American generation with a standard of living lower than their parents — assuming an older generation doesn't beat them to it. The effects of too few jobs have pressed people into part-time work when they want full-time, forced recent college graduates to accept jobs that don't require a degree and have left many young adults with no paycheck at all.

"So many positions have just become an unpaid internship, and it makes it really difficult," said Molly Greenhouse, 22. The Baltimore resident, who expects to graduate from college this May, is having trouble finding full-time entry-level jobs — paid ones — in the museum or archaeology fields.

"I know plenty of people who have unpaid internships in what they really want to do, and at a certain point, they have to give up and get jobs at a restaurant," she said.

If it were a short-term issue on the mend, that would be one thing, Sum said. But he said young-worker employment nationally showed little improvement in 2013, and was low already for much of the past decade.

That's left many young adults without a foundation on which to build a resume.

"Work experience begets further work," said report co-author Martha Ross, a fellow with Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program. "If you miss out on key early work experiences, it is harder for you to get a foothold in the labor market."

The Baltimore region is by no means in the worst shape. Two-thirds of the country's largest metro areas had lower teen employment levels in 2012 than this area. For 20- to 24-year-olds, the Baltimore region is in the middle of the pack.

Americans most hurt by this shift — the ones with the fewest jobs in this shrinking pool of opportunity — are teens from low-income families, Sum said. They need work both to climb out of poverty as adults and to help their families with crushing expenses now.

Seventeen-year-old Dawnya Johnson of Baltimore said the consequences when young adults are left without employment can be devastating.

Last year, she watched a friend's brother, then 16, apply for work at fast-food restaurants, retailers and all the places he could find that traditionally hired teens. Nothing came through. He started selling drugs and now has a criminal record, she said.

"He just really couldn't find a job," she said, "and his family just really needed the support that he could bring."

Johnson and other student leaders with The Intersection, a Baltimore youth leadership organization, have zeroed in on the problem with Urban Alliance, a job training and internship group for youth. They've just launched a campaign to get young Baltimore residents ready for work and find employers willing to hire them.

Their goal is 235 youth jobs — one for every person killed in the city last year.

The two issues are inextricably linked, Intersection leaders say. That's what they heard last year when asking more than 400 city residents for ways to reduce violence.

"What people overwhelming said is this problem, first and foremost, is about a lack of youth opportunities and is about a lack of youth employment," said Zeke Cohen, executive director of The Intersection. "We see youth unemployment as a major, major problem facing Baltimore and Maryland."

The city has two Youth Opportunity centers that help young workers prepare for jobs, obtain subsidized internships and find work. Though federal support dried up years ago for summer job programs, the city continues to operate its annual YouthWorks effort — patching together city, state, foundation and donated funds to put about 5,000 14- to 21-year-olds in paid positions.

But the scale of the need is daunting. Over 11,000 youths have applied for this summer's program and more would be eligible, said Karen Sitnick, director of the Mayor's Office of Employment Development in Baltimore.

To increase the pool of available positions, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake launched the Hire One Youth campaign two years ago to encourage businesses to bring on at least one young worker each summer through YouthWorks.

"There's 13,000 companies in the city of Baltimore," Sitnick said. "If everyone would just hire one youth … it would certainly make a big dent."

Christopher Parker, 20, credits his six summers in YouthWorks — five at Mercy Medical Center — for the 30-hour-a-week job he started last Monday at the Baltimore hospital.

Mercy, which has had positive experiences with its YouthWorks participants, was happy to bring him back permanently, said Mark Bailey, the hospital's director of community engagement and volunteer programs.

Parker didn't have luck elsewhere. He wants to go to college and said he couldn't find much that would give him flexibility to attend classes.

"I filled out applications for a lot of places, a lot of places, and all of them said the same thing: Basically they were looking for somebody else," said Parker, a Northeast Baltimore resident. "I'm just like, 'Wow, it's hard for people our age to find jobs.' "

Part-time work is common in some fields, like retail. But Bailey said that when he was in college, there seemed to be more such opportunities at hospitals, law firms and other places with a career ladder — a way in for students.

Teens in 2000 worked for a wide variety of employers, from utilities to banks, Sum said. Now they're largely confined to jobs at restaurants, retailers and lower-level service providers.


And expectations for entry-level jobs keep rising.


Knighten, who lives in Reservoir Hill, graduated from Western High School in 2011. She has three semesters of college under her belt and intends to go back in the fall.

For now, she's looking for a customer-service job or something similar. She applied for a job as a 911 operator too. Meanwhile, she plans to seek some sort of medical certification. She's seeing in the job postings that her education so far is often not enough.

"To get a job right now without a certification is kind of hard," she said.

That pressure is felt up the educational ladder.

Greenhouse, who interned at a museum and an archaeology lab, said that experience and the bachelor's degree she's nearly earned seem insufficient for even entry-level work in her field, with people competing for too few jobs.

Eli Hyman, 23, who graduated in December with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, said the positions he's seeing call for so many specific skills that he can't imagine what new graduate has them.

"My perception is it's really more of an unwillingness to hire entry-level employees, just generally," he said.

Leonard J. Howie III, Maryland's labor secretary, said the network of state and local agencies that focus on workforce issues are always encouraging employers to hire young workers. It's good for those workers, of course, but, he said, there's a benefit to companies, too.

"The sooner they can get them in … they're more likely to build employees who will stick around," Howie said.