To the high school class of 2010 . . .

  • Author: Michael Saltsman

  • Publication Date: May 2010

  • Newspaper: Tulsa World

  • Topics: Minimum Wage, Teen Unemployment

Dear members of the class of 2010,

Congratulations! You’ve waded through four years of trials and tribulations to hear this commencement address. High school diploma in hand, you’re ready to take on the world! Unfortunately, as you may have already heard, the world doesn’t have much room for you at the moment.

If you’ve looked for a job recently, you probably don’t need me to tell you how bad things are: Almost one in four teenagers enrolled in high school who wants to work is unemployed. Finding a job also takes longer than it used to. Nearly a third of teens looking for work have been doing so for six months or longer, more than double the percentage in 2007.

As bad as things are for you, they’re even worse for your friends who dropped out of school altogether. Almost one out of every three un- enrolled high school dropouts from the age of 16 to 24 is unemployed; African American dropouts face a staggering 60 percent unemployment rate.

These unemployment rates are a shame, since your first job represents more than just your first paycheck. It’s your chance to get a taste of the real world. Your teachers may have done a fine job teaching you how to pass history exams, but what about learning to deal with temperamental coworkers, customers and bosses? That’s a skill set you pick up in the workplace.

So why is it taking you guys and gals so much longer to find a job?

That’s easy: There’s less work to go around.

The double-whammy of a great recession
and a huge increase in the minimum wage has done you teenagers no favors. From July 2007 to July 2009, the federal minimum wage spiked 40 percent. That means less work for less- experienced teens, because it’s more expensive for a business to hire and train you.

Even worse, the feds have started cracking down on work you could be doing for free. How many of you are planning on interning this summer? Looking forward to hobnobbing with a future employer while making contacts in your industry of choice?

Well, plan on doing something else. The Department of Labor has said that there are virtually no circumstances under which for-profit employers can hire unpaid interns. Businesses now have the choice of paying you for the training they’re providing, or not bringing you on for the summer. In a bad economy where every penny counts, you can guess which option they’re going to choose.

So there aren’t any minimum wage jobs and there aren’t any no-wage internships. Either of these would help you work your way up the career ladder, but neither are available.

I wouldn’t normally advise playing the lottery as an investment strategy, but you all are quickly running out of options.

Of course, Congress could do new graduates (and recent dropouts) a real favor by simply rolling back the minimum wage for teenagers.

It’d be a free incentive for employers to take a chance on you, the unskilled worker. And it would help you gain that valuable experience needed to get a better paying job in the future.

But don’t hold your breath.

I wish I had better news for you, the class of 2010. Hopefully, your parents still have some space in the basement. And from what I hear, the front lawn always needs mowing.

Michael Saltsman is the research fellow at the Employment Policies Institute, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to studying public policy issues surrounding entry-level employment.