The number of young Kentucky adults who are neither in school nor working is skyrocketing, and if the trend continues, the state runs the risk of having another generation of residents in which far too many lack the skills for even the most basic jobs and are destined to spend their lives on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder.
In addition, if this state continues to lack enough residents with the skills to qualify for the best paying jobs, Kentucky will not be able to convince companies offering good jobs to locate in the state.
The nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation released a report Monday that said the U.S. youth employment rates for both 16- to 19-year-olds and 20- to 24-year-olds are the lowest they’ve been in 50 years.
The numbers in Kentucky mirror the national rate, and are in fact a little higher. Between 2000 and 2011, the number of young adults ages 20 to 24 who are not in school and not working grew by 88 percent. For 16- to 19-year-olds, the number rose 3 percent, thanks mostly because of the number in that age group who are still in school.
“We cannot attend to the looming question of disengaged youth with worn-out answers,” said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. “Instead, we have to invent new structures and new expectations around which business, government, schoolhouses, faith communities and nonprofits work together.”
The report blames the problem on several factors, including increasing competition from older workers due to the recession, youths who do not graduate high school ready for college, poverty and low-performing schools.
The foundation warns the youths are heading toward a path of chronic unemployment as adults. Of course they are. If you lack the skills to find a job at 21, it is going to be even more difficult to find employment at 50.
The bottom line is this: There are 110,000 young people in Kentucky between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not enrolled in school and not employed, even part-time.
Many of these young people face numerous obstacles, according to the report, Youth and Work: Restoring Teen and Young Adult Connections to Opportunity. Often described as disconnected youth, they have difficulty finding employment because they face greater competition from older workers for increasingly scarce entry-level jobs, especially in light of the recession, and lack the higher skill set required for the well-paying jobs that are available. They often don’t graduate from high school on time or ready for college, further decreasing their employment options. And many contend with hurdles beyond their control, such as growing up in poverty or attending low-performing schools.
“Building a strong future for Kentucky requires preparing today’s youth to be productive workers in adulthood,” said Brooks. “These young people deserve opportunities to work and to be successful, ultimately contributing to a prosperous future for the Commonwealth.”
The report emphasizes the need to provide multiple, flexible pathways to success for disconnected young people and to find ways to re-engage high school dropouts. It also advocates creating opportunities for youth in school or other public systems that allow them to gain early job experience through such avenues as community service, internship and summer and part-time work. In Kentucky, policymakers and advocates can work to streamline public benefits by creating a single application for several public programs, making it easier on young people to get the help they need while searching for work or going back to school.
The report further emphasizes the impact of a continuing problem that we have discussed many times in this space: Too many young people are graduating from Kentucky high schools lacking the knowledge and the skills that are essential for them to not only be successful in college but even to hold a job that does not require a college education. Since they have a high school diploma, they don’t need adult education to earn a GED; they need it to learn what they should have learned in high school.
In a world in which jobs are becoming more and more complex, Kentucky cannot afford to have another generation of adults woefully unprepared for success. The best way to lower the high rate of unemployment among youth is to better prepare them for good jobs.