Young adults: California’s forgotten class

Original Article:

  • Author: Jordan Bruneau and Michael Saltsman

  • Publication Date: April 2017

  • Newspaper: Orange County Register

  • Topics: Minimum Wage

California may have the world’s sixth-largest economy, but that’s cold comfort for young adults confronting a dismal summer job market.

Once known for its beautiful beaches, moderate climate and stunning vistas, California today is better known for being inhospitable to the middle class — a net importer of better educated, higher-earning employees, and a net exporter of almost everyone else. For those who remain — young adults in particular — there’s little to celebrate.

In 2017, the overall state youth unemployment rate ticked up from 18 to 20 percent. In the metropolitan areas of Bakersfield, Modesto, Salinas and Stockton, youth unemployment lies north of 30 percent; on average, just one in five teens in these cities is employed. Even in more economically robust parts of the state such as Los Angeles and the Bay Area, youth unemployment rates still hover around 20 percent.

Not surprisingly, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti didn’t run for re-election on the fact that fewer than one in five teens in Los Angeles County has a job.

These struggling jobseekers are California’s forgotten class, overlooked or ignored by state and city legislators more concerned with new wage mandates rather than new job opportunities for young people. The Golden State prides itself on moving opposite the national trend, no more so than in politics. But the state is also moving opposite the national trend on youth employment, missing the improving conditions seen in much of the country.

No conversation about the youth jobs crisis would be complete without mentioning the state’s incoming $15 minimum wage, which provides an additional barrier to employment. A state known for its technological prowess has helped enable iPad-style ordering devices and burger-flipping robots to replace the jobs once held by young adults. Not all businesses can embrace automation to offset higher labor costs, and many have closed their doors.

This includes closures and cutbacks in the same markets when teens are now most in need of work. Swiggs Burgers and Wings in Fresno closed their doors partially because of a minimum wage increase; same story with the nearby Corner Café. Digger’s Deli in Vacaville was forced to lay off three employees because of a state wage hike. R-N Market in Hanford closed last year, laying off roughly 50 employees in the process. And Tri Tipps restaurant in Valencia also closed because of the minimum wage and other regulations. (More stories can be found at

The inability for young people to find work has consequences beyond just a lost paycheck. A study by economists at University of Virginia and Middle Tennessee State University found that part-time work experience in students’ senior year of high school is associated with a 20 percent earnings premium over their counterparts later in their careers. In addition, a recent Federal Reserve study found that millennials with early work experience recovered better from the Great Recession than those without.

Researchers often cite the so-called soft skills learned at starter jobs as the reason for their lasting benefits. These soft skills include socialization, teamwork and customer service that help nearly all employees throughout their careers. Learning the art of handling an angry customer at a young age, for instance, is a priceless education that no starter wage could buy.

Labor activists tend to diminish the value of starter jobs at restaurants and retailers. But this rhetoric doesn’t match the reality faced by a young adult in a city like Bakersfield, where just one in 10 teens is employed. If California legislators are serious about putting these young residents to work, they first need to have a serious conversation about the workforce barriers that prevent it from happening.