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Minnesota needs to improve its poor recent record on youth employment

Last weekend, the Duluth News Tribune carried an article titled ‘Teen employment is falling, leaving a future workforce less prepared‘. Indeed, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the participation rate for 16 to 19 year olds in Minnesota has fallen from 69.8% in 2000 to 52.3% in 2016, a fall of 17.5 percentage points. Over the same period, the participation rate for all workers over 16 has declined by 3.9 percentage points, from 75.1% to 71.2%.

Figure 1 – Minnesota’s labor force participation rates

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

We might expect the overall participation rate to be falling as our population ages, older folks are less likely to be working. But the steep decline in the youth rate is a puzzle. And it represents a couple of problems for Minnesota.

The first is the impact on the state’s alleged ‘labor shortage’. Employers, we are told, cannot find workers. The most commonly touted solution is increased immigration. But, as Erik White, regional labor analyst with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, told the Duluth News Tribune, “There’s no doubt many of the jobs in the economy are those lower-skill, entry-level jobs which would seem perfect for a young person to start their career”. Shouldn’t we make use of the young, unutilized labor we have before brnging more people in to do unskilled work?

Second, is the effect this has on the ability of young adults to accumulate skills. As the Duluth News Tribune reported,

“That’s not necessarily technical skills so much as soft skills — things like the ability to resolve conflicts at work, knowing how to conduct yourself as a professional in the workplace,” said Joe Mahon, regional economist with the Minneapolis Federal Reserve. “There’s pretty persuasive evidence that part-time employment among high school students has positive effects on later career outcomes.”

This is an excellent point. As I wrote last week of my time in a pizza restaurant,

I haven’t proofed a base or topped a Super Supreme in nearly 20 years. It might seem that few of the skills I learned at that first job have subsequently come in useful. But that would not be correct. That first job taught me the most basic, important skill of all: getting my behind out of bed in the morning. 

Improving Minnesota’s poor recent record on youth employment-which is a nationwide phenomenon-would have real benefits. It would help alleviate the ‘labor shortage’ and it would enable the workers of tomorrow to begin acquiring the skills they need.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment. 

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