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Finding job increasingly tough for young adults

| Saturday, April 5, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

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.

‘Bottom fell out'

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.”

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 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.

Tough to get foothold

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.”

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.

“He just really couldn't find a job,” she said, “and his family just really needed the support that he could bring.”

Finding help

Johnson and other student leaders with The Intersection, a Baltimore youth leadership organization, have zeroed in on the problem with Urban Alliance, a job training and internship group for youth. They've just started a campaign to get young Baltimore residents ready for work and find employers willing to hire them.

Their goal is 235 youth jobs - one for every person killed in the city last year.

The two issues are inextricably linked, Intersection leaders say. That's what they heard last year when asking more than 400 city residents for ways to reduce violence.

“What people overwhelmingly said is this problem, first and foremost, is about a lack of youth opportunities and is about a lack of youth employment,” said Zeke Cohen, executive director of The Intersection. “We see youth unemployment as a major, major problem facing Baltimore and Maryland.”

The city has two Youth Opportunity centers that help young workers prepare for jobs, obtain subsidized internships and find work. Though federal support dried up years ago for summer job programs, the city continues to operate its annual YouthWorks effort - patching together city, state, foundation and donated funds to put about 5,000 14- to 21-year-olds in paid positions.

But the scale of the need is daunting. Over 11,000 youths have applied for this summer's program and more would be eligible, said Karen Sitnick, director of the Mayor's Office of Employment Development in Baltimore.

To increase the pool of available positions, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake launched the Hire One Youth campaign two years ago to encourage businesses to bring on at least one young worker each summer through YouthWorks.

“There's 13,000 companies in the city of Baltimore,” Sitnick said. “If everyone would just hire one youth, it would certainly make a big dent.”

Christopher Parker, 20, credits his six summers in YouthWorks — five at Mercy Medical Center — for the 30-hour-a-week job he started last Monday at the Baltimore hospital.

Mercy, which has had positive experiences with its YouthWorks participants, was happy to bring him back permanently, said Mark Bailey, the hospital's director of community engagement and volunteer programs.

Parker didn't have luck elsewhere. He wants to go to college and said he couldn't find much that would give him flexibility to attend classes.

“I filled out applications for a lot of places, a lot of places, and all of them said the same thing: Basically they were looking for somebody else,” Parker said. “I'm just like, ‘Wow, it's hard for people our age to find jobs.' ”

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