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Automation, rising minimum wage and educational trends make it hard for young men to get jobs

Published: Monday, March 24 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Young men who are unable to find employment and vocational skills early in life are less likely to embark on a career path that ensures stability in adulthood. Many factors limit the options of those entering adulthood.

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The rising rate of unemployment among teenagers is the latest in a perfect storm of social and economic trends that is clouding the future for American youth, particularly young men. Jobs are harder to come by. This scarcity is likely to continue as technology and automation replace jobs traditionally held by those first entering the workforce, and as long as government tinkers with policies that make it harder for companies to hire young people.

The consequences may be difficult to grapple with: young men who are unable to find employment and vocational skills early in life are less likely to embark on a career path that ensures stability in adulthood. That includes socialization that leads to marriage, fatherhood and the ability to contribute as productive citizens.

The research was well documented in a four-part series earlier this month produced jointly by TheAtlantic.com and Deseret News. The series focused on the challenges facing young men as they move into adulthood. It provided details on developments that offer reasons for optimism.

One reason for hope is the programs springing up to provide apprenticeships for teenagers to gain real-world work experience as part of their secondary or post-high school educations.

In Chicago, educators found that over a 30-month period, boys who participated three afternoons a week during the school year demonstrated measureable growth in maturity, social skills and general perseverance. The students in the study were considered part of a high-risk population who, without such assistance, were likely to drop out of school and be without any significant opportunity for employment.

In other states, notably Georgia and Wisconsin, school-based apprenticeship or “school-to-work” initiatives are proving successful in increasing rates of high school graduation and college enrollment, as well as higher levels of teenage employment, according to the report.

In Utah, the rate of teenage employment is relatively high, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institute. The Provo area enjoys the nation’s highest rate of employment among 16-19 year olds, at about 49 percent. The national rate is around 26 percent, down from about 45 percent in 2000. The higher job rate in Utah is attributed to several factors, primarily the influence of an overall low unemployment rate, a higher-than-average number of youth per capita, and a culture of attaining part-time employment at an early age.

That culture provides benefits to individuals and to society at large. To ensure that it continues, educators in Utah and nationwide should consider the kinds of initiatives to partner schools and businesses in apprenticeship programs. Existing programs could be expanding to a larger scale, extending their benefits.

Similarly, both local and national policy-makers must remember not to do harm to teenage employment prospects. Specifically, raising the national or state minimum wage laws are certain to narrow the opportunities available for younger workers. The Obama administration’s recent mandate to require set rules for overtime pay is another disincentive for youth employment.

On the educational front, policies that recognize the value of more vocation-based curricula might measurably reverse the trends that have presented fewer teenagers with job opportunities. This is something the education establishment has wandered away from since the 1980s.

Given current trends limiting the options for those entering adulthood, these programs can provide those in their late teenage years – particularly young men – with the ability to secure a stronger foothold on their future.

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