Tough job market for young adults

Simone Knighten is hunting for a job. Hunting and hunting.

The 20-year-old Baltimore resident thinks it's harder now than when she landed work at restaurants in the past two years. She's spending days at one of the city's Youth Opportunity centers, getting help with her search.

"I've been looking since January," said Knighten, sitting in the West Baltimore building with brightly painted walls. "I've been going all around, calling back and everything, but it didn't seem like anything was working, so that's why I came here. Because obviously I felt like I wasn't doing something right."

A new report from the Washington-based Brookings Institution finds that many people in their teens and early 20s are similarly stuck, here and nationally.

The job market is so terrible for young adults — and has been now for years — that it's reached crisis proportions, said study co-author Andrew Sum.

"The bottom fell out," said Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. "We should be terribly concerned. … You have a lot of people who are losing opportunities to build their work experience."

The numbers tell the story.

In 2000, 43 percent of residents ages 16 to 19 in Baltimore and its suburbs had jobs, according to Brookings. That figure slumped to just under 32 percent — less than a third — by 2012, the most recent regional numbers the think tank analyzed.

Locals 20 to 24, prime working age, took a sizable hit as well. Not quite 65 percent were employed in 2012, down from nearly 71 percent a dozen years earlier.

Many older residents have struggled to find work, too. But as a group, the Baltimore area's 25-plus crowd was employed at a slightly higher rate in 2012 than in 2000, Brookings said.

It's a nationwide problem, which is why economists fear Millennials will be the first American generation with a standard of living lower than their parents — assuming an older generation doesn't beat them to it. The effects of too few jobs have pressed people into part-time work when they want full-time, forced recent college graduates to accept jobs that don't require a degree and have left many young adults with no paycheck at all.

"So many positions have just become an unpaid internship, and it makes it really difficult," said Molly Greenhouse, 22. The Baltimore resident, who expects to graduate from college this May, is having trouble finding full-time entry-level jobs — paid ones — in the museum or archaeology fields.

"I know plenty of people who have unpaid internships in what they really want to do, and at a certain point, they have to give up and get jobs at a restaurant," she said.

If it were a short-term issue on the mend, that would be one thing, Sum said. But he said young-worker employment nationally showed little improvement in 2013, and was low already for much of the past decade.

That's left many young adults without a foundation on which to build a resume.

"Work experience begets further work," said report co-author Martha Ross, a fellow with Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program. "If you miss out on key early work experiences, it is harder for you to get a foothold in the labor market."

The Baltimore region is by no means in the worst shape. Two-thirds of the country's largest metro areas had lower teen employment levels in 2012 than this area. For 20- to 24-year-olds, the Baltimore region is in the middle of the pack.

Americans most hurt by this shift — the ones with the fewest jobs in this shrinking pool of opportunity — are teens from low-income families, Sum said. They need work both to climb out of poverty as adults and to help their families with crushing expenses now.

Seventeen-year-old Dawnya Johnson of Baltimore said the consequences when young adults are left without employment can be devastating.

Last year, she watched a friend's brother, then 16, apply for work at fast-food restaurants, retailers and all the places he could find that traditionally hired teens. Nothing came through. He started selling drugs and now has a criminal record, she said.