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Mass. youth are left out of state’s improving economy

The state’s healthy economy pushed the overall unemployment rate to a 15-year low of 3.6 percent in September, but many younger workers haven’t rebounded. AP/FILE

While their parents and even grandparents have returned to the workforce after the Great Recession, teens and young adults in Massachusetts are still sitting on the sidelines in large numbers, losing out on opportunities to climb the economic ladder.

The state’s healthy economy pushed the overall unemployment rate to a 15-year low of 3.6 percent in September, but many younger workers haven’t rebounded, according to a new report scheduled to be released Thursday by the University of Massachusetts.

Employment among 16-to-24-year-olds in Massachusetts reached 46 percent in 2015 — an improvement over recent years — but well below 2008 levels, when more than half of this age group worked. Meanwhile, older workers have climbed back into the labor market and are now working near or above pre-recession levels, according to the report.


The report paints a particularly bleak picture for black and Hispanic youth, as well as those living at or below the poverty line, and older youth without a college education.

Less than half of black and Hispanic youth were employed, compared to 57 percent of whites. While Asian employment is lower than all other groups, many are in school, instead, according to the report.

Black and Hispanic youth are also more than twice as likely as white and Asian teens and young adults to be out of school and out of the labor market, a double-whammy in economic terms, according to the report.

“Some segments of young adults are falling behind,” said Mark Melnik, director of the economic and public policy research group at the UMass Donahue Institute and author of the report.

Some of the decline in youth employment is driven by increased college attendance and fewer young people opting for work while they are in school. Some young workers have also been displaced because workers 55 years and older have remained in the labor market after the recession, according to experts.


Still, stubborn youth unemployment is worrisome to economists and policy makers, because early jobs help workers build communication and cooperation skills, figure out career paths, and establish networks that can help them later in life.

The 9 percent of the state’s teens and young adults who are neither at work nor in school face the toughest path, Melnik said.

For Steve Marcelin, a Hyde Park resident, it was money that forced him to leave college last year before he earned a degree or had a job.

Marcelin, 24, was rejected for a loan to finish his final two years at Boston Architectural College, leaving him worried about his dwindling chances of finding full-time work and eventually paying off his debt.

“I was depressed,” Marcelin said. “I just didn’t want to sit at home.”

Marcelin said he started going to the Connection Center, a program launched by the City of Boston and several area nonprofits and community groups last year to help young people improve their long-term job prospects.

The coaches at the center helped him enroll in a vocational carpentry program and find two part-time jobs to help pay the bills.

“I’ll be ready to work in the field and I know that I won’t have to borrow any more money,” Marcelin said. “I’m feeling hopeful. The jobs are available if you have the skills.”

But making sure that young adults have those skills requires greater investment in job-specific training and programs to ensure that young people have at least some college education for the state’s education-reliant work, said Joseph McLaughlin, research director of the Boston Private Industry Council, which places teens in summer jobs and commissioned the study.

The report found that the more education 20- to 24-year-olds had, the better their chances of working. Even those without a degree, but some college work, had higher employment rates than those with just a high-school diploma.


As the state’s unemployment rate drops and baby boomers retire, Massachusetts employers will have to find new workers. And these young adults could be an untapped source, McLaughlin said.

“Youth are nowhere near full employment,” McLaughlin said. “How are we going to fill the jobs of the future with the retiring baby boomer generation if we’re not connecting with them early on?”

The tighter job market and trouble filling positions may encourage more businesses to turn to younger workers, said Jon Hurst, president of Retailers Association of Massachusetts.

But retailers have been reluctant in recent years to hire young people because of the increase in the state’s minimum wage, Hurst said. If they have to pay more, they want older, more experienced employees, he said. The association has backed an age-based minimum wage for that reason.

“It’s about creating an incentive for employers to give them the first leg up,” Hurst said. “Our members simply aren’t hiring them anymore because they can’t afford them.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.

Due to a reporting error, Mark Melnik’s name was initially misspelled. The story has been updated with the correct spelling.