The summer of our teens’ discontent
Florida parents, prepare yourselves: With a 22.4 percent teen unemployment rate heading into this summer, your jobless kids might be making frequent withdrawals from the Bank of Mom & Dad for their vacation spending cash. There are a number of factors at work: More competition from older jobseekers, for instance, has put young and inexperienced applicants at a competitive disadvantage. But also at fault are a series of ill-conceived minimum-wage mandates at the state and federal level, which raised the cost to hire and train the teens who fill those jobs. Those same teens can only hope that President Obama and Congress won’t make it worse by following through on another proposed increase. Nationally, teen unemployment has been above 20 percent every summer since 2009. That’s four straight summers — soon to be five — of record teen unemployment. And tellingly, they’ve all occurred during or since the 40 percent hike in the federal minimum wage between 2007 and 2009.The timing is more than just coincidence. Writing in 2010, economists at Miami and Trinity Universities estimated that — even accounting for the effects of the recession — at least 114,000 young adults lost job opportunities as a direct result of the federal wage hike. (Other economists have put that figure above 300,000.) Percentage-wise, this came out to a 6.9 percent drop in teen employment in the states affected by all three stages of the federal wage hike. For those teens with less than 12 years of schooling, the relative drop in employment was even higher at 12.4 percent. One need only look at the businesses where teens are employed to understand why. Nearly 40 percent of the nation’s employed teens work in the leisure and hospitality industry (think restaurants, movie theaters and hotels), and another 25 percent work in retail jobs at grocery stores, service stations and the like. These types of businesses aren’t exactly rolling in the dough. Their profit margins are generally 2 or 3 cents on every sales dollar. Sudden spikes in labor costs — such as a 40 percent jump in the minimum wage in two years — leave these businesses with two options: Raise prices, or reduce costs. When raising prices isn’t an option — good luck with that in a rough economy — the only other option is to provide the same product with less service. This might mean having waiters or waitresses bus their own tables, or opting for a self-service alternative to young grocery baggers. The data bear this trend out: Teens’ share of employment in the leisure and hospitality industry dropped by more than 20 percent between 2007 and 2011. In retail, it’s fallen by nearly 30 percent over that period. This makes it all the more baffling that wage hike advocates in Congress, seeking to fulfill the president’s State of the Union call for higher rates would raise the minimum wage by another 40 percent to $10.10. This may be good politics, but it’s certainly not good policy. Teens — whether in Florida or anywhere else — start climbing the employment ladder through their first summer jobs. Further minimum-wage hikes only postpone their ability to get these jobs, which research shows hurts their future earnings, employability, and professional development. That might not seem pressing to the teens, who will just lie on the beach or lounge on the couch for the next three months. But it is much more concerning for their parents, who want nothing more than a good future for their kids — and maybe even some peace and quiet between now and September.
Michael Saltsman is the research director at the Employment Policies Institute.