Young unemployed face uncertain job options

Well-educated dot-commers not the only face of unemployment

Posted: Monday, February 25, 2002

BOSTON -- Priscilla Ramirez has never had stock options. She doesn't have high-tech skills. She has no MBA to fall back on. And she isn't spending her jobless months traveling through Asia.

She is 19, and simply wants work as a receptionist or office assistant to support herself and her year-old daughter.

She is also, a recent study argues, a more accurate picture of unemployment than the laid-off dot-commers and hyper-educated entrepreneurs who have gotten most of the attention lately.

''My age right now, if you want to find a decent job, unless it's like Walgreens, it's really hard to get a foot in the door,'' Ramirez said, sitting in a classroom at the Boston community center where she has been taking a course to learn to write resumes and cover letters.

She has been unable to find a job since she graduated from high school. A half-dozen interviews have produced no offers that pay enough or meet her child-care needs.

The study, by economists Andrew Sum of Northeastern University and Robert Taggart of the University of Delaware, argues that young people ages 16 to 24 have been hit harder by unemployment in this recession than a cursory look at the numbers indicates. In fact, the study says this recession has been harder on younger workers than past downturns.

The U.S. unemployment rate, a relatively modest 5.6 percent overall in January, measures only active job seekers. The researchers focused instead on a broader measure that also accounts for jobseekers who have given up looking -- in some cases, to go back to school.

Working from federal unemployment data, the economists report that more than half of the 2.1 million jobs lost in this recession have been at the expense of young people.

The percentage of employed young people fell 4 percentage points to 54.4 percent in 2001, nearly 3 points below its lowest level in the 1990-91 recession, the study found. The 4-point drop is nearly four times greater than that for older adults.

High school graduates with no college -- people like Ramirez -- fared the worst of any group in relative terms, with the percentage of those employed dropping 4.6 points. College grads suffered the smallest decline in their employment level, which fell just 0.7 percentage points.

Other studies have estimated that 100,000 dot-com jobs were lost in 2001, which pales in comparison to the more than 1 million jobs lost by 16-to-24-year-olds.

''The Enron collapse, which fills the daily newspapers, weekly magazines, and the nightly TV news, affected only 5,000 workers directly, while the recession has eliminated 220 times as many jobs for young adults,'' Sum and Taggart wrote.

Why are things worse this time? ''Last time around, even though jobs fell a lot, the young adult population was actually declining. There were fewer young adults because of the baby bust,'' Sum said. ''This time, it's growing.''

Also, temporary labor and leasing jobs, popular among young people, have been hard hit, along with the dot-com world.

Young black workers fared the worst, losing in 2001 nearly a decade's worth of gains in their overall employment level. They had gained 9 points in the previous eight years and in 2001 lost 7 points, Sum said.

Many young people who lost their jobs have chosen to go back to school. Ramirez wants to go to college to study interior design, but needs a job to afford it.

From what she can see, Ramirez said young applicants are facing a particularly tough time.

''A lot of older people are settling for more entry-level jobs, which is kind of kicking people down,'' she said. ''Before, a lot of entry-level jobs, a teen-ager would have filled that position, but now anybody would take it.''

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