I started mowing grass and shoveling snow in the neighborhood when I was very young. Shortly thereafter I began looking after neighborhood kids. I worked a regular shift at my family’s drug store. I later cleaned the meat room at a grocery store, cashiered at a retail outlet and tried my hand in an Elkhart factory.
I wasn’t alone. Many of my friends and classmates also entered the workforce at a young age; bagging groceries, flipping burgers, scooping ice cream, delivering newspapers, or life-guarding at the local pool. The opportunities seemed plentiful and we had many chances to try our hands at different things.
My chief objective in those assignments was to make a few dollars. As I got older, I realized I needed money for those things I was most interested in.
At the same time, I was learning many valuable lessons about being in the workforce that I believe have helped me be a better employee, co-worker and boss. My education in the classroom was important. But the education I was getting in the workforce was also critical.
I learned a lot about responsibility, about problem solving, about critical thinking. My employer and our customers were counting on me, and I didn’t want to let them down. I learned about working in teams and about getting along with co-workers. I got a feel for what I was interested in, and more importantly what I wasn’t. My future career interests were largely shaped by those early experiences.
My story is not unlike most from my generation. But our story is proving to be very different than today’s young people that are preparing to enter the workforce. Employment amongst those between the ages of sixteen and nineteen is at its lowest point in decades according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And they predict it will continue to decline over the next decade.
Overall, the labor force participation rate amongst all ages is 62.6%. (The labor force participation rate is those people either working or actively seeking work). Amongst sixteen to nineteen year olds nationally, that rate is now just 34%, down almost 20% over the past twenty years.
Locally, only about 28% of those sixteen to nineteen year olds eligible to participate are actually participating. The demands of school, sports, and other extra-curricular activities contribute to the declining numbers. In addition, fewer employment opportunities exist today. Many of those positions traditionally held by young people were filled by older adults during the height of the recession.
Employer’s chief complaint these days is about the workforce and the lack of soft skills, those personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people. Many workers haven’t had the opportunities like I and others did when we were younger to develop those key skills in an entry level position.
Employers need to recognize the important role they play in the talent pipeline and once again make available entry level positions for young people seeking experience. Though raw in experience, the enthusiasm and exuberance of youth as well as the fresh perspective from a new generation of worker can be an important asset for the company.
But the real responsibility lies with parents. Parents must encourage and demand their children find a job to gain that valuable work experience. It doesn’t have to be glamorous or even in line with a student’s career aspirations, just something to give them those valuable life lessons. Young people have to start at the bottom, and work their way up. Their long term success and the long term success of our economy depend on it.