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Young people's opportunities shrink in Tampa Bay workforce

Stacey Steen, 19, of St. Petersburg.

JEFF HARRINGTON | Times

Stacey Steen, 19, of St. Petersburg.

Take a close look at Tampa Bay's recession-hardened workforce and you'll notice something missing.

There aren't as many young workers as there used to be. Not by a long shot.

In fact, over the past decade, more young people either stayed out or fell out of the job market in Tampa Bay than just about anywhere in the country.

A report released Friday by the Brookings Institution highlights the dramatic dropoff: Back in 2000, almost 73 percent of those ages 20 to 24 in the bay area had a job; a dozen years later, just under 60 percent within that age group were working.

That drop made Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater the fifth-hardest-hit metro area in the country for young people seeking work, according to Brookings.

For 16- to 19-year-olds, it's a similar tale. Only 23 percent of older teenagers in the area were employed as of 2012, down from 47 percent in 2000. The dropoff was the sixth biggest among the 100 largest U.S. metros.

"The whole country experienced a shock in terms of reduced demand for labor. But some had it worse, like you did," said Martha Ross, a Brookings fellow and report co-author.

Before the recession, Tampa Bay was in the top third of best markets for youth employment; now it has tumbled into the bottom quarter.

Why was the fall so pronounced here? In large part, because times were so good heading into the recession.

For nearly two solid years between the summers of 2005 and 2007, unemployment in the bay area hovered between 3 and 4 percent. Jobs were plentiful in both retail and construction, ripe opportunities for 20-somethings with limited work experience.

When the housing bust hit Florida, many of those opportunities vanished.

• • •

The bay area's overall unemployment rate has receded from the double digits to near 6 percent. But heady days of full employment remain elusive as job seekers still outnumber job opportunities and employers still are slow to hire.

"A slack labor market is the enemy of a teen or (other) would-be worker who is young," Ross said. "They're typically at the end of the line in the labor market even in nonrecessionary times. Now they're competing with all the people with more experience and a higher level of education."

That's the case for Stacey Steen, 19, of St. Petersburg, who has been on a frustrating job search for more than a year, starting when she was pregnant with her now-7-month-old son.

She receives $241 a month through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to help her buy diapers and food. She's living with her sister until she finds work.

"I'd take anything — just to support me and my son," she said. Applying at fast-food restaurants, hotels and stores like Target hasn't worked out yet. Companies tell her that business is too slow or else to check back in April when she expects to finish her GED high school-equivalency classes.

• • •

To be sure, youth employment has been trending down for decades as more high school graduates pursue college and post-graduate degrees. Similarly, more teenagers are bypassing summer jobs and weekend work to "pad their resumes" with activities and volunteering so they're more attractive college candidates, said Heidi Shierholz, a labor economist with the Economic Policy Institute.

What's disturbing, however, is that the decline in youth employment has far exceeded the pace of rising college enrollment.

"Enrollment rates have been increasing since the recession began, (but) it's been going along at a normal course," Shierholz said. "Most of that decline we've seen in labor force participation among young people is due to weak job opportunities."

Problems for young job seekers have been documented throughout the recession and gradual recovery: Employers are reluctant to hire anyway and, when they do, prefer experienced candidates. The trickle-down effect of a weak labor market means many are taking jobs a step or two below their educational and work background. College graduates and pre-retirees taking service industry jobs translate into even fewer opportunities for teenagers or recent high school grads.

Among other national takeaways from the Brookings report:

• The sharpest decline in labor force participation since 2000 has been among teens and young adults; in "an unprecedented twist," those 55 or older were more likely to be working than before.

• The percentage of teenagers who were employed dropped from 44 to 24 percent between 2000 and 2011.

• The employment rates for the 20- to 24-year-old age group fell from 72 to 60 percent over the same time. But education matters: The decline was smallest for those with an associate's degree or bachelor's degree.

• The unemployed account for only half of those early 20-somethings who want a job but aren't working. The other half includes the "underemployed" who are working part-time jobs, unable to find full-time work, and what Brookings calls "the hidden unemployed," a term for those who desire a job even though they're not actively looking.

Although the analysis doesn't include data beyond 2012, Ross said she has extrapolated to include 2013 employment statistics, "and we didn't see significant changes."

• • •

Brookings concludes the consequences of what's commonly been described as "The Lost Decade" for young workers could be devastating.

"Finding and keeping a job is a key step in a young person's transition to adulthood and economic self-sufficiency," the report states. "Employment obviously allows young people to cover expenses for themselves and their families, but it also provides valuable opportunities for teens and young adults to apply academic skills and learn occupation-specific and broader employment skills such as teamwork, time management and problem solving."

Not to mention providing work experience and contacts to help that young worker find the next job in their career.

"People talk about the potential scarring effect of coming of age in a weak labor market … that it can slow down your wage growth for years to come," Ross said.

"It is worrying, but it is not destiny. Your (job path) is not written in stone."

Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or jharrington@tampabay.com.

Young people's opportunities shrink in Tampa Bay workforce 03/14/14 [Last modified: Friday, March 14, 2014 3:17pm]
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