Latest Posts





Teens need foundation formed from entry-level, summer jobs

This op-ed appeared June 28, 2018 in the Duluth News Tribune

On June 10, the News Tribune published an article on its front page headlined, “Teen employment is falling, leaving a future workforce less prepared.” Indeed, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the employment-participation rate for 16- to 19-year-olds in Minnesota fell from 69.8 percent in 2000 to 52.3 percent in 2016, a decline of 17.5 percentage points. Over the same period, the participation rate for all workers over 16 fell by just 3.9 percentage points, from 75.1 percent to 71.2 percent.

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. What is causing it?

We aren’t talking about technical skills here as much as “soft skills.” As Joe Mahon, regional economist with the Minneapolis Federal Reserve, explained in the News Tribune article, these are “things like the ability to resolve conflicts at work (and) knowing how to conduct yourself as a professional in the workplace.”

Indeed, my first job at 16 was working in the kitchen of a pizza restaurant. I haven’t proofed a base or topped a Super Supreme in nearly 20 years, but the basic skills that first job taught me were some of the most important: keeping to a schedule, managing money, etc. These skills are the foundation to which we subsequently add more involved, technical skills. But the job is that much harder without that foundation.

Strangely, perhaps, despite this low level of teenage employment, we often hear worries of a looming labor shortage in Minnesota. Employers, we are told, cannot find workers, and 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 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 bringing more people in to do unskilled work?

Improving Minnesota’s poor recent record on youth employment — 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 (americanexperiment.org), based in Golden Valley, Minn.




Upcoming Events

  • Morning in Minnesota: St. Cloud

    Location: St. Cloud

    Sign up HERE! Courtyard by Marriott St. Cloud 404 West Saint Germain Street St. Cloud, MN, 56301 Please join Center of the American Experiment on Tuesday, July 21 for breakfast with Center policy fellow and education expert Catrin Wigfall as she explains K-12 education in the state and its persistent disparities despite decades of increased spending. Following her presentation, Catrin will lead a Q&A session. 7:30 AM Check In and Breakfast 8:00 AM Presentation 9:00 AM Conclude   Catrin Wigfall is a Policy Fellow at Center of the American Experiment. She is also the director of EducatedTeachersMN and EmployeeFreedomMN. Catrin’s…

    Register Now
  • Kristi Noem: The Courage to Reject a Shutdown

    Location: Online

    Sign up HERE! Join us Wednesday, July 8th for an interview with South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem over Zoom. In response to COVID-19, Noem defied the norm of a statewide shutdown and let South Dakotans choose for themselves what safety precautions to take. Tune in to this live online event to hear how Governor Noem preserved her state’s economy while still keeping citizens safe. Wednesday, July 8th at Noon CT Sign up HERE!  

    Register Now
  • Morning in Minnesota: Marshall

    Location: Marshall Golf Club

      Sign up for this event HERE! Please join Center of the American Experiment on Thursday, July 16 at Marshall Golf Club for a breakfast with Center economist, John Phelan, as he discusses Minnesota’s economic future. Following his presentation, John will lead a Q&A session. 7:30 AM Check In and Breakfast 8:00 AM Presentation 9:00 AM Conclude John Phelan is a graduate of Birkbeck College, University of London, where he earned a BSc in Economics, and of the London School of Economics where he earned an MSc. He worked in finance for ten years before becoming a professional economist. He…

    Register Now