Cleia Kim spent the winter looking for work, applying to dozens of jobs and getting only a handful of callbacks.
The 18-year-old wants a job to support herself through college. But the biggest barrier has been her limited work experience.
“They usually want one or two years of experience,” said Kim, who graduated last year from Bellevue High School. “It’s hard to get that when you’re just out of high school. I feel like there should be more opportunities for young people, even if it’s something small.”
A new study by the Brookings Institution shows that while job prospects for teenagers have deteriorated nationwide in the past 12 years, the trend is even more pronounced locally.
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The employment rate for teens 16 to 19 in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue area fell from 45.8 percent in 2000 to 25 percent in 2012, according to Brookings.
That 20.8 percentage-point decline represents the 14th-deepest drop nationwide and puts Greater Seattle in the bottom third of metro areas for teen employment.
The study, which comes as Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and the City Council consider enacting a $15 minimum wage, is sure to stoke the debate over whether mandating a pay raise for workers at the bottom rung of the career ladder helps or hurts young people.
Brookings, an influential think tank based in Washington, D.C., analyzed employment trends by age for the 100 largest U.S. metros and found that, in general, between 2000 and 2012 teens and young adults “fared poorly, and sometimes disastrously.”
The U.S. employment rate for teens — the portion of all people 16-19 who are working — fell by 14.2 points over 12 years to 27.5 percent.
The recession hit America’s youth hard by putting older workers in the position of having to take whatever they can get, including entry-level jobs, said Brookings fellow and study co-author Martha Ross. Without those jobs, teens have lost important steppingstones to a career, she said.
“They’re competing with adults who have years of seniority on them,” she said. “You might have college graduates working as waiters or coffee baristas, even though you don’t need a college degree to do that.”
The report also notes school enrollment among young people rose modestly during the 2000s, and that could explain some of the drop in teen employment
The study’s time span roughly coincides with Washington’s enactment years ago of a minimum wage above the federally mandated level, so it could add fodder to an already intense debate over a $15 wage floor in Seattle.
A 1998 ballot initiative lifted the state minimum wage from $4.90 to $5.70 in 1999, then to $6.50 in 2000, followed by annual inflation adjustments.
At $9.32 an hour, Washington has the highest minimum wage of any state. (An exception is made for 14- and 15-year-olds, who may be paid 85 percent of the minimum, or $7.92.)
Critics long have argued that raising the minimum wage hurts teens’ chances of landing their first job by making employers less likely to hire workers with limited skills and experience.
Supporters of a $15 minimum wage say it would put more money in workers’ pockets and boost consumer spending, creating positive ripple effects throughout the economy.
Jack Miller, who owns the Husky Deli in West Seattle, says he’d make do with fewer, more-experienced employees if forced to pay a $15 minimum wage. He has 43 full-time and part-time employees. Most earn more than $9.32 an hour but less than $15, he said.
“As an owner and manager, if you’re going to pay $15 an hour, you’re going to get your $15-an-hour’s worth,” he said. “You could probably get a 22-year-old to do the job of two 16-year-olds.”
Ross sidestepped the $15-pay debate, saying the Brookings report is not a referendum on the minimum wage. Rather, she said, the recession and its lingering aftermath are to blame for a tough teen job market.
“A lot of this would be solved if there were more jobs, period,” Ross said. “We do not have enough aggregate demand for all kinds of goods and services to produce job growth.”
But the Employment Policies Institute, a critic of
President Obama’s push to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 from $7.25, recently called out Washington for having one of the worst teen jobless rates in the U.S.
Teen joblessness statewide was 30.6 percent at the end of 2013, up from 28.6 percent the year before, said Michael Saltsman, the institute’s research director. That’s all the more striking given that Washington’s overall jobless rate has declined, to 6.4 percent in January, he said.
Even in Florida, where the minimum wage is not far above the federal level — $7.93, or $4.91 for tipped workers — teen employment fell dramatically.
Florida’s Cape Coral-Fort Myers and Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville metros each saw teen employment plunge 27.4 percentage points over the past 12 years, the deepest drop nationwide, according to Brookings.
What’s more, Greater Seattle fared better than the U.S. overall on employment for slightly older workers.
In 2012, the region’s employment rate was 67.6 percent for people 20 to 24, and 66.1 percent for those over 25, the 15th-highest ranking. In both cases, prospects dimmed over a dozen years from 74.5 and 67.4 percent, respectively.
Indeed, teens aren’t the only ones struggling to find work in a tough economy.
All Americans under 54 were less likely to have jobs after the 2000s, with the sharpest declines among teens and young adults, while those 55 and over were more likely to be working, Brookings says.
The report says that while teens should consider jobs “complementary” to education — and in fact will be better off if they focus on school and get their diploma — some work experience can improve their earnings for years to come.
“Work experience as a teen is associated with success in the labor market down the line,” Ross said. “You don’t worry about teen unemployment because they need jobs to put food on the table. You worry about it because they may get off on the wrong foot in the labor market when they do need full-time jobs.”
Brookings makes several public-policy recommendations to boost teen employment, including expanding programs that match education and training to employer demand, integrating more work-based learning into education, and increasing the chances that high-school students will get postsecondary credentials by enabling them to take college classes.
Kim, the Bellevue High grad, is working with Manpower to meet the license requirements for a part-time job at State Farm in Issaquah.
Meanwhile, she has a full course load at Bellevue College and plans to transfer to the University of Washington for an engineering degree.
“It’s possible to get a job,” she said. “It just takes a lot of time.”
Amy Martinez: 206-464-2923 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @amyemartinez