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Teens getting squeezed out of labor market, study finds

Teenagers are getting squeezed out of the labor force in record numbers as unemployment among the youngest workers remains at astronomical levels nearly five years after the last recession ended, according to a study from the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

The study, released Friday, found that numbers of working teenagers has plunged by nearly half over a decade, to 24 percent in 2011 from 44 percent in 2000. Nationally, the unemployment rate among teens is 25 percent, compared with less than 7 percent for all workers.

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“If this were any other group, you would call it a Great Depression,” said Andrew Sum, the Northeastern University economist who coauthored the study.

Boston teens fared better than those in most other metropolitan areas, researchers said, due to job training and state and local jobs programs targeted at teenagers here. Still, only about one-third of teenagers could find jobs, according to the study.

Competition from older, more experienced workers pushed into lower-skilled jobs because of the weak economy has crowded out teenagers from traditional jobs in retail, restaurants, and other lower paying service industries, Sum said. This lack of opportunity could have long-term effects on teens, the labor force, and the broader economy as young people fail to gain the experience that might help them advance careers and become more productive workers, resulting in lower earnings over a working life.

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Martha Ross, a labor market researcher with Brookings, said high teenage unemployment is partly the result of a longer trend in which employers have shifted from younger workers to older ones, such as seniors looking to supplement retirement incomes.

But the major cause, she said, is a labor market in which the number of workers seeking jobs, particularly in lower income occupations, exceeds available positions.

“This is a problem caused by weak demand for labor,” Ross said. “Even in a regular economic situation, young people are likely to be at the end of the line since they have the lowest levels of experience and education.”

The Brookings study examined teen employment in 100 metropolitan areas. It found the highest percentage of employed teenagers, 43.2 percent in Ogden, Utah. Los Angeles had the lowest, just 16.9 percent.

Many New England cities fared relatively well. Portland, Maine, ranked seventh, with about 37 percent of teens employed. Providence and Hartford ranked 15th and 17th respectively, each with about 34 percent of teens employed.

Teenage employment in Boston, which ranked 20th, was about 10 percentage points above the national average. Ross said initiatives run by groups like the Boston Private Industry Council, which connects students to jobs, internships and academic opportunities, have helped prevent teen employment from slipping further.

Still, it remains an uphill battle, advocates said. Dan Gelbtuch, who founded the Youth Jobs Coalition, which pushes for funding for youth employment projects and works with business and political leaders to create more opportunities, said Boston employers are often reluctant to hire young people.

He cited a statistic from former mayor Thomas M. Menino that only 14 percent of Boston businesses with more than a hundred employees offer summer job opportunities to teens. “It’s a challenge,” Gelbtuch said.

Keturah Brewster, 18, works as an organizer for the Youth Jobs Coalition. She said employers often underestimate the contributions teens can make to businesses.

“I believe that if a teen has a job they’ll be more successful in their later years,” Brewster said. “If they get skills earlier, then they can build on those skills later.”

The problem of not having work experience has troubled job-seeking teens for years, but a persistent lack of a paying job can lead to prolonged joblessness, according to the study. Teens who had paid employment in one year were more likely to work the following year, the study found. Conversely, said Sum, “If you don’t work at all, you are the least likely to work the following year.”

Ross said direct community engagement is the best way to help the problem of teenage unemployment. Schools that have implemented counseling services that cater specifically to job searching and placement have seen success, she said. The report also suggested creating subsidized jobs programs to encourage employers to hire teens as the labor market continues to recover.

Sean Lavery can be reached at sean.lavery@globe.com.
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