Any period of unemployment can have a crippling effect on a worker’s career and finances. But to be both young and unemployed in America presents its own set of unique challenges.
Workers under the age of 30 have contended with five solid years of double-digit unemployment — 19% for 16- to 19-year-olds and 10.6% for 20- to 24-year-olds at last count. The economy is slowly improving and there are jobs to be had again. The overall U.S. unemployment rate dropped to 6.3% in April as 288,000 jobs were added -- the highest in two years, the Labor Department announced Friday. But young people who haven’t been able to find work are now struggling to compete in a tough job market with little experience.
“The longer you’re not in the workforce, the harder it is to get back in,” says Rory O’Sullivan, deputy director of the Young Invincibles. “Employers look at resumes and there are a lot of young people working outside of their field of study. You can imagine all those things can make it harder to build a career.”
As many as one in five high school graduates and one in 10 college graduates are considered “disconnected youths,” those who are not working or enrolled in college, according to a new report by the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank.
“There is little evidence that young adults have been able to ‘shelter in school’ from the labor market effects of the Great Recession,” the authors write. “Increases in college and university enrollment rates between 2007 and 2012 were no greater than before the recession began—and since 2012, college enrollment rates have dropped substantially.”
If these “idle” young people were factored into unemployment rates, it would raise the combined rate of unemployment for 16- to 25-year-olds from 14.5% to 18.1%.
And of those young people who have managed to find work, nearly half are considered to be underemployed, often working in part-time jobs that may have little or nothing to do with their chosen career path. What’s more, young people who graduate in 2014 will likely earn less than they would have if they had graduated in a stronger economy, the EPI report says.
Wages for high school graduates have dropped by 9.8% since the recession and wages for young college graduates fell by 6.9%.
Youth unemployment isn’t just a “young people” problem either. A recent report by the Young Invincibles estimates it has cost the U.S. economy nearly $9 billion in lost tax revenue since 2007. Each unemployed 18- to 24-year-old represents an estimated $3,200 in lost tax revenue, and each 25- to 34-year-old costs more than twice as much: $7,000. And with nearly one-third of millennials living at home with their parents, parents who might have otherwise been enjoying the relief of an empty nest must instead continue their roles as financial guardians.
The reality is that young people are disproportionately impacted by economic downturns and no matter how much the U.S. economy improves, they will be feeling the effects of the recession for many years to come.
We spoke with several young people under the age of 30 -- all solidly in the “underemployed” camp -- who are struggling to launch their careers.
“My resume is a work of art.”
Sara Beck, 28, has spent the better part of a year trying and failing to find a full-time marketing position in Plymouth, Minn.
Her troubles have little to do with her lack of education or job skills: She has an MBA in international business, spent six years working abroad, and speaks perfect Spanish.
“My problem is that I’m either too experienced or not experienced enough for some of the jobs I want,” she says. “I had a really promising interview, but I got an email recently that they decided to go with candidates whose experience aligned more with the requirements. It was an entry-level position.”
While Beck pursues a career in the U.S., her husband, a Chilean national, stayed behind in Santiago to work on obtaining a U.S. residenct visa. She’s caring for their daughter on her own while living with relatives until she can find work.
“I can't send my daughter to the daycare of my choice because I'm saving money,” she says. “I have more than $70,000 left in student loan debt. It's insane to think about.
In the meantime, she has cobbled together enough freelance work to stay afloat — writing, editing and translating gigs that put food on the table but don’t necessarily improve her odds of landing a marketing job.
“I try to take a job in, say, content writing and apply it to a job as a business analyst,” she says. “My resume is a work of art."
Failure to launch
Zarif Ali, 27, lost his job at Los Angeles Airport during a round of layoffs in 2013. He decided to go back to school, picking up engineering classes at a community college to bide his time until more work came along. But jobs were few and far between.
“I was applying to jobs left and right, at least 100,” he says. “I only got a few interviews and no offers.”
While his search for full-time work wore on, Ali lived at home with his mother and brother. Eventually, he had to borrow money to make his car payments each month.
“I hate [asking for money] because I’m not a child anymore,” he says. “It’s a pride thing. I don’t want to, but I need it and I tell my mother I’ll pay her back in full and then some.”
For Ali, things turned around a month ago, when a friend told him about the Hospitality Training Academy (HTA), a Los Angeles program that trains unemployed youth for jobs in the hospitality industry. Within a few weeks, he was hired as a cashier at a new restaurant opening at the airport — not exactly the engineering job of his dreams, but for Ali, it’s a welcome reprieve from a year of dead ends.
“To be out of work for such a long time and to have a company see potential in you, it’s a boost to your confidence,” he says. He’s planning to return to school in the fall to complete his engineering degree.
The HTA gave Latavia Moore, 27, a much-needed boost as well. When Moore’s grandparents passed away in 2009, she decided to take over the rent payments on their Santa Monica, Calif., home, where she grew up. Her parents chipped in when they could, but she didn’t like to ask for help.
She was one credit shy of completing her Associate’s Degree in communications and business, but she put off school to work instead.
“Things were very tight,” she says. “With rent, my car note and other bills to pay, I had to take three part-time jobs.”
In the mornings, she worked as an office assistant. At noon, she would rush to pick up a shift at either a local juice bar or a grocery story and work through the evening. In what little time she could find to take off work, she would go to interviews for full-time jobs.
“I had to take off work for interviews and I was never ready,” she says. “My resume wasn’t ready. I didn’t have much knowledge on how to look for full-time jobs or how to conduct myself.”
Nothing seemed to stick, until a friend introduced her to the Hospitality Training Academy in late 2013. The HTA set her up at resume and interviewing workshops. Within four months, she had found a job as a front desk clerk at a new hotel.
“I just quit my jobs last week,” she says. “I’m just in training now, but I think this is something I want to do as a career.”
Christina Lu, 24, has spent as much time writing her resume as she has been preparing her defense for when hiring managers inevitably question it.
Since graduating from San Diego State University in 2010, Lu has held a handful of short-lived jobs in sales and social media marketing, along with a stint as a foreign language teacher in China. None lasted longer than a year.
“I think it all logically makes sense why I moved around, and I try to explain that [in interviews],” she says. “I mention that I’m looking to find a place to stay long-term.”
After a few years of trial and error, she eventually settled on brand marketing. Problem was she had little experience in the field. In November, she took a paid internship at a marketing agency in New York.
“I took this position despite that resume-wise and title-wise it is a step back,” she says. “I felt like it was a good way to step into what I really want to do.”
So far, her original six-month contract has been extended, but if she isn’t hired as a full-time employee by June, it’s back to the job hunt. At least this time she’ll be heading in the right direction.
“I’m proactively interviewing right now and trying to meet as many people in my field as I can,” she says. “It helps now that I know what I don’t want to do.”