AUGUSTA, Maine — The good news: A higher percentage of teenagers and adults in Maine have jobs than the national average, which according to a leading state economist is due to Maine’s widest-in-the-country swing between warm-weather and cold-weather jobs.
The bad news: Nationally, the percentage of young people working is at its lowest point since World War II.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s new Kids Count Youth and Work Report found that in 2011, some 82,000 Mainers aged 16 to 24 reported having a job. About 39 percent of Mainers 16-19 were employed compared to 64 percent aged 20-24. In that respect, young people here fared well against the national averages of 26 percent and 61 percent, respectively.
Within the data are both bad news and silver linings. While an increasing number of young adults are absent from the workforce because they are in school, more are simply watching their job opportunities be filled by adults.
Glenn Mills, chief economist for the Maine Center for Workforce Research, attributed Maine’s favorable standing in this category to spikes in the number of jobs available during the summer, which are higher than any other state in the nation.
“Our seasonal swing is more than double what it is in the nation,” said Mills. “In the summer there’s more opportunity for kids because of the seasonal nature of our economy. There are only a couple of other states that could possibly have swings of the same magnitude.”
However, Mills said that doesn’t immunize teens and young adults from a downward trend in the workforce that is happening across the United States. He said the decline in Maine has been especially prevalent in the past decade. Part of it is due to higher percentages of young adults continuing their education. Nationally, school enrollment rates for teens 16-19 years old rose from 79 percent in 2000 to 85 percent in 2011. In the 20-24 category, the percentage jumped from 31 to 38 percent.
“People are realizing now that it’s much harder to make a middle-class living without a college education,” said Mills, though he added that most of the decline is due to older adults who are forced to work jobs formerly filled by younger people because of the economy.
“Many employers prefer someone who has shown a history of work ethic,” said Mills.
Several states are worse off than Maine, indicates the Kids Count survey. In Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and New York, the percentage of employed 20- to 24-year-olds stood at between 51 and 56 percent. At the upper end of the spectrum, nine states had more than 70 percent of people in that age group working, including New Hampshire at 72 percent.
Mills and the Kids Count report said the overall downward trend is troubling because poor employment for young people often becomes a lifelong struggle.
“Youth who miss out on an early work experience are more likely to endure later unemployment and less likely to achieve higher levels of career attainment,” reads the report.
“Everyone needs opportunities in their teen years and young adulthood to experience work and attain the job-readiness skills needed for long-term success. Those shut out of the labor market for considerable periods, especially in the early stages of their careers, have markedly reduced prospects for later connections to jobs.”
The long-term impact on society is severe. One study cited in the report estimated that every 16-year-old who is out of work and out of school will cost taxpayers some $260,000 during his or her lifetime. In the entire 16- to 24-year-old population as of 2011, that could cost society more than $1.5 trillion, according to the report.
The report suggested a range of more robust education and career-readiness programs, including those designed to re-engage high school dropouts in their educations, could improve the numbers.
“We must transform our response to meet the needs of young people,” states the report. “A more flexible, focused and nimble approach is required now. More than ever, our efforts must dovetail with the needs of employers who must respond to the emerging economy with the best-prepared talent possible.”