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Editorial: Youth employment levels remain alarmingly low

From the Herald-Dispatch of Huntington: One troubling workforce development trend only seems to be getting worse.

As employers continue to raise concerns about the work ethic and soft skills of entry-level job candidates and new employees, researchers also are finding that fewer young people have the part-time work experience and summer jobs that often help teach those skills.

From mowing yards to stocking shelves, those first jobs are often where many of us learn the importance of showing up, following instructions and working with others.

But that rite of passage seems to be gradually fading away. In the mid-1990s about 50 percent of teens ages 16-19 were employed in the summer, but by last year, that figure had dropped to about 30 percent. Moreover, overall employment of young people has declined and continues to be one of slowest segments to come back from the recession.

Only 49 percent of those ages 16 to 24 were employed at any point last year, and in many states youth employment remains well below pre-recession levels. In Ohio and Kentucky, youth employment is higher than the national average, but both states are still about 2 percent below their 2005 to 2007 levels.

But the decline in West Virginia is even more pronounced. Youth employment in the Mountain State has dropped from 46 percent in 2007 to 42 percent in 2016, the second lowest rate in the country.

Certainly, employment opportunities are a factor in the trend, and some argue that minimum wage increases have hampered youth employment. But social changes also seem to contribute to the decline.

Even in some states with higher overall employment, youth employment has dropped significantly, and some researchers say more students are focusing on their school work and academics rather than pursuing part-time jobs.

But that does not seem to fully explain the decline in West Virginia, because the state’s college-going rate has fallen, as well. It is also a concern that the Mountain State’s youth employment is so far below neighboring states – 42 percent compared to 56 percent in Ohio and 51 percent in Kentucky.

As the summer jobs season approaches, we would encourage both young people and employers to look a little harder at seeking and creating work opportunities and help provide important learning experiences that will benefit the state workforce for years to come.

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