abigail bostwick/lakeland times

North Lakeland Elementary School students Lily Dahl and Piper Lundquist are pictured in this file photo from May showing Fab Lab donator Michelle Bear how their lazor-cut, electric car project works. Schools in the area provide opportunities such as automotive, welding and construction classes, in the school for students to be introduced to skilled trades. “We need to give them (students) the opportunity to make choices...,” LUHS district administrator Jim Bouché said in response to the shortage of students in the local workforce. “Do they go to college? Do they go into a career?”
abigail bostwick/lakeland times North Lakeland Elementary School students Lily Dahl and Piper Lundquist are pictured in this file photo from May showing Fab Lab donator Michelle Bear how their lazor-cut, electric car project works. Schools in the area provide opportunities such as automotive, welding and construction classes, in the school for students to be introduced to skilled trades. “We need to give them (students) the opportunity to make choices...,” LUHS district administrator Jim Bouché said in response to the shortage of students in the local workforce. “Do they go to college? Do they go into a career?”
Employers across the U.S. are in the throes of a major labor shortage, scrambling not only to find seasonal help but to fill full-time jobs in the trades and other industries, and, as they and labor experts look for explanations, one fact stands out more than any other: Young people in general, and especially those in school, are rapidly disappearing from the work force.

It begs the question: Where have all the students gone, and why?

It wasn’t too long ago — the late 1970s — that students clamored for part-time and summer work, and that was true both for high school and college students. As late as 1978, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data, 58 percent of the nation’s 16-to-19 year olds held a summer job; that number had declined to 35 percent in the summer of 2017.

For the other nine months of the year, 45.1 percent of working-age teens held some type of employment in 1978; by 2017, the number had dropped to just 28.7 percent.

Looking at the labor force participation rate of teens during the summer — the total of those both employed and looking for work — is even more telling. In July 2016, the teen labor force participation rate was 43.2 percent, down almost 30 percent from the high point of 71.8 percent in July 1978.

The pinch is being felt by those who recruit part-time high-school help and by those who recruit college students for summer employment, such as Mary Fried, the director and owner of Camp Agawak, who has run the camp for 30 years.

“It is definitely more of a struggle to find college students or college-age students to fill positions at camp, whether it be counselor positions, lifeguard positions, or activities counselors,” Fried told The Lakeland Times last week. “I’ve found that there is a shortage, and overall, these kids coming through want a lot higher salaries as well. It’s interesting. I definitely see this shortage and it concerns me.”

Along with other efforts, Fried said she recruits counselors through an organization called CCUSA — Camp Counselors USA — and she says she has worked with that group to bring in international counselors, many of whom come from Australia, New Zealand, and England.

These days, Fried said, those international counselors are critically important because of the domestic labor shortage.

“If I didn’t have my girls from Australia and England and New Zealand, I would not be able to open my camp,” she said. “Because I have a website where American students can apply. I have gone to Eau Claire and Oshkosh. I’ve gone to IU (Indiana University) down in Bloomington, Indiana.”

Though she attends those college fairs trying to get American students to come work at the camp, Fried said she gets very few applications. 

“When we went to the job fair at Indiana University, there were very few kids,” she said. “I came away with one college student that came up to my table. At this IU college fair — one. And so what’s interesting, what I’m seeing, not only is there a shortage, but the commitment is not there. I see kids who are like ‘Well, I’ve got to do this. And I’ve got to do that. And I want off for this. And my family’s going on this vacation. And I have to go to tennis camp.’”

Let me count the reasons why

The question is, just what is the array of factors behind the drop in youth employment?

There are multiple theories and no doubt a combination of influences are at play, both local causes and national ones.

In the Lakeland area, for instance, there has been an absolute decline in the high-school aged population. The enrollment at Lakeland Union High School has dropped precipitously, from 918 in 2007 to 686 last year — a loss of a third of the school population — and a likely equivalent loss to the seasonal labor pool on this side of the county.

Still, the loss of the local school-aged population has finally leveled off, while the loss of teens in the labor force overall has not, meaning there are more entrenched national and sociocultural factors at work in the trend of young people not working.

One of them has been a national effort since the late 1960s to encourage as many young people as possible to head to college after high school, instead of staying home, learning a trade, and entering the work force. The political scientist Charles Murray thinks that has been a mistake because not every child is cut out for college, and perhaps not even most.

“It has been empirically demonstrated that doing well (B average or better) in a traditional college major in the arts and sciences requires levels of linguistic and logical/mathematical ability that only 10 to 15 percent of the nation’s youth possess,” Murray said in a 2009 interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education. “That doesn’t mean that only 10 to 15 percent should get more than a high-school education. It does mean that the four-year residential program leading to a B.A. is the wrong model for a large majority of young people.”

A better model for many students might be entering a technical school or apprenticeship program and finding a skilled job locally, and it would provide desperately needed workers for employers in those skilled trades.

Jim Bouché, the district administrator of LUHS, says the push to send all children to college has long been a pet peeve of his, and he says LUHS is working to prepare students to have a choice of either school or work.

“We need to give them the opportunity to make choices at the end of their four years in high school,” Bouché said. “Do they go to college? Do they go into a career? Do they go into the military? I want to make sure we’re taking care of those students so they are ready to take that next step.”

Bouché said he recently attended an event where work force specialists said they were having a tough time recruiting young people into the labor force because superintendents were encouraging too many kids to go to college.

“And I was thinking, that’s exactly right,” he said. “We’re losing people because everybody is being encouraged to go on to college and I’ve had a pet peeve about that ever since I was over in the Minneapolis-St Paul area. They would brag about the fact that they had a 99 percent graduation rate and had 92 percent going on to college but my question was, are those 92 percent really needing to go on to college? Should they be going on to college? So that’s where I started to get the idea that we need to get more people to the tech schools and we need more people going into the work force.” 

LUHS is doing just that, he said.

“We have Fab Labs, but we haven’t gotten rid of automotives,” he said. “We haven’t gotten rid of construction. We haven’t gotten rid of welding — we’ve added more welding stations than anything else. We’re offering all of that whereas a lot of schools had to make choices. If they wanted a Fab Lab, they couldn’t have automotive. We believe we have to cover all of that.”

Bouché said that, when he first arrived at LUHS, about 60-62 percent of LUHS graduates went on to four-year colleges. Now about 51 or 52 percent go on to four-year schools versus 31 to 33 percent to tech schools.

Fewer and fewer

Of the students who do go to college, fewer and fewer are working, and there are reasons for that as well.

One reason is, the increasing availability of college loans has made it easy for students to subsidize their living expenses and to use their loans in lieu of a summer or part-time job. The temptation has grown for students to be able to focus on other pursuits, whether it’s class work or lifestyle.

To cite just one example, according to Preston Cooper, a research analyst in education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, the Parent PLUS loan program, which allows parents of undergraduate college students to borrow unlimited sums to finance their children’s education, now accounts for about 20 percent of all federal college loans, up from 13 percent in 2011, and it is four times the size it was in 1995. The program lent out $12 billion during the 2015-16 academic year, Cooper wrote in Forbes, at an average of more than $14,000 per year.

It’s not just that students want to take the money to avoid work, though many undoubtedly do. Rather, many students these days find themselves forced into higher and higher amounts of student debt because summer and part-time jobs will no longer pay their college bills as the cost of college skyrockets and wages stagnate.

In 2017-18, the average estimated undergraduate budget price for students living on-campus and attending a public nonprofit four-year institution was $25,290, using College Board data. Living off-campus drives the price to more than $40,000.

However, a student working a 40-hour-a-week minimum wage job in Wisconsin would earn only around $15,000. And that’s working full-time, not part-time.

It didn’t use to be this way. According to MarketWatch, a Dow Jones company, a student making a part-time minimum-wage salary could pay for 95.1 percent of the UW-Madison’s cost in 1987 but an equivalent job would cover only 54 percent in 2016.

Add it all up, and the old formula for paying for college — a combination of work, family help, and a little debt — is no longer possible for most. Whether by choice or by necessity, more and more students rely on student loans rather than part-time or seasonal jobs to make their way through college. 

According to data from the Institute for Student Access and Success, 71 percent of all students graduating from four-year colleges in 2012 had student loan debt, or 1.3 million students, up from 1.1 million in 2008 and 0.9 million in 2004. All totaled, more than 44 million Americans owe slightly more than $1.5 trillion in student loan debt.

“The idea of working your way through college has become an anachronism, akin to pay telephones and black-and-white televisions — and the last two, of course, have been replaced by much better things,” wrote Richard West, dean emeritus of New York University’s Stern School of Business, in The Wall Street Journal earlier this year. “Today massive student debt is the norm, sometimes in addition to a job on campus and work during the summer.”

Higher and higher

Other factors keep the college labor pool even smaller. Not only are more students going to college, and more college students using loans rather than jobs to pay their way, but many more students are going to graduate school, keeping them out of the labor force even longer.

For example, data from the Council of Graduate Schools showed a 3.2 percent increase in master’s degree production between 2014-15 and 2015-16, a 0.9 percent average annual increase between 2010-11 and 2015-16, and a 2.4 percent average annual increase between 2005-06 and 2015-16.

As the Pew Research Center points out, federal loans per graduate student are much greater than those per undergraduate — meaning borrowing is even more prevalent in graduate school, suggesting even lower levels of employment. 

Indeed, new graduate students are explicitly encouraged to seek out teaching assistantships and research projects at school during summers, and to volunteer in areas that would boost their graduate school needs.

And then there is the phenomenon of summer internships, most of then unpaid, which are skyrocketing and taking even more students out of the basic labor pool, undergraduate and graduate alike. 

In the 1990s formal unpaid internships were rare. No longer. Now they are commonplace, especially since the Great Recession. 

Rodd Perlin, the author of Intern Nation, How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, told USA Today in 2012 that 1.5 million internships are filled in the United States each year, nearly half of them unpaid. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), more than 62 percent of the Class of 2017 reported completing an internship and/or co-op during their college careers, up from 50 percent of college grads in 2008 and 17 percent in 1992.

Locally, Mary Fried says the phenomenon is real.

“What I find is that the counselors that I used to get that are American, they can’t work or they maybe want to come to camp, but their parents are — not forcing them but stressing the importance of these things that are called internships,” Fried said. “It’s like, usually down the road, you didn’t get an internship until you were older in college. Now, these kids — freshman year in college — they’ve got to get an internship and it doesn’t matter, maybe they’re even working for free. But these internships are pulling potential counselors away from me.”

A lot of those “internships” aren’t even true internships, Fried said.

“A lot of them are just free labor,” she said. “And I don’t know where it’s getting our kids. Because I tell my counselors: ‘You know what? You can do a job as a counselor and give of yourself 24 hours a day, 6 days a week. You are learning more about leadership and about putting somebody else’s needs above yours and being ultra-responsible and a good role model.’”

Fried said she didn’t think that was the case in half of those internships. 

“You might be making copies,” she said. “Or you might be in a great firm or something and the name looks good. It’s all about the name. And what looks good on their resume, as opposed to a really true, quality work experience where you’re getting life experience, too. I do feel like these internships have hurt my type of business.”

High school, low employment

High school students are drawn to internships, too, and other factors also keep them from seasonal or part-time work, including extracurricular activities, changing school schedules, and the growing popularity of summer school.

Indeed, if filling out student loan applications is the new summer job for college students, summer school might be it for high school students. Nationally, Bureau of Labor Statistics show, the percent of 16-to-19 year olds enrolled in summer school has quadrupled in the last 30 years. In July 1985, for example, just 10.4 percent of the nation’s 16-19 year olds were enrolled in summer school; that number stood at 42.1 percent in July 2016.

Extracurricular activities and especially too much emphasis on sports also keeps kids out of the work force, says Linda Coffen, who runs a local cleaning business.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Coffen told The Times. “I think it’s great. Athletics are important. You need to keep active, to have an active lifestyle, to stay in shape, to be healthy, but I feel up here, it is so pushed with athletics that they keep their kids out of working. I did sports my whole high school and grade school, but I worked. And now, it’s just like sports has engulfed everything.”

Still, she says, the desire to work hasn’t completely disappeared.

“My daughter’s going to be a sophomore this year at Lakeland,” she said. “And most everybody in her class that I know — of her group of friends — is working. Every single one of them.”

The generational divide

That said, a common theme echoing among most area employers is that many young people today in their teens or 20s simply don’t want to work. Call it laziness, or a feeling of entitlement, or a cultural and generational phenomenon, but for many young people work just isn’t cool anymore.

A 2018 report by the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas found that the teen labor force participation rate for the summer of 2017 was right at 40 percent, as it has been for almost a decade.

“Teen employment has been falling steadily since the 90s and especially since the recession,” said Andrew Challenger, vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “The teen participation rate in the summer months has hovered near 40 percent since 2009, well below the highs of the 70s, 80s, and 90s at near or over 60 percent.”

And for various reasons many of those kids simply don’t want to look for work, Challenger said.

“With the myriad responsibilities facing American teens, it’s no wonder few opt to add ‘summer job’ to the list,” he said. “However, the kinds of jobs that employ most teenagers help build crucial soft skills that many employers value.”

While some teens might be busy, and some might be interning, and others might be involved in extracurricular activities, and still others no doubt hail from affluent families and don’t have to work, many teens simply don’t find work a cool thing to do, experts say.

It’s cultural, in other words.

“Teenagers are exquisitely sensitive to the social norms of their peers,” wrote The Atlantic’s senior editor, Derek Thompson, last year. “If they see cool older teenagers scooping ice cream during their freshman summer, they’ll really look forward to a job scooping ice cream during their sophomore summer. But any social feedback loop can spin both ways. Recently, the cultural norm is shifting toward summer classes and unpaid internships rather than summer jobs.”

Thompson pointed out that the share of teenagers who say they wish they were working has fallen by about 50 percent since the 1990s.

“That suggests — although it cannot prove — that summer jobs have lost cultural cachet, as the norm has shifted away from working,” he wrote.

It’s that factor that concerns employers like Mary Fried.

“The common thread (for my work force) is that they don’t have to work,” Fried said. “What I do see, and what I’ve seen over 30 years is … they want to work less for more because it’s been handed to them. A lot has been given to them, whether it’s from the government or from their parents who can afford it. They have been given a lot and have not had to work for it.”

It was different when she grew up, Fried said. 

“When I grew up, I had to work for what I had,” she said. “Where these kids are like ‘Oh, you want this? OK, you can have that. You want this? Oh, my gosh! You’ve got to have this, too!’ And this — maybe — over-indulgence has created a work force where the kids don’t feel like they have to work because some of them don’t. Because it’s been handed to them. They have nice clothes. They have food. Their school’s being paid for. Some of these kids have really, really nice cars. Like, nicer than I have. And they’re not paying insurance; they’re not paying gas. There’s no hurt. So I do feel there is a thread there of, really, some of them don’t have to. ”

It’s different with many of the international students, Fried said. 

“And I’ll tell you this: when my Australians come over, they know how to work,” she said. “And not only that, but they don’t complain about working. It’s expected. And so I just feel like there’s more overall quality to the work and they’re more conscientious, as well. And it scares me for our young kids today. I just feel like we’ve done them a disservice.”

All that said, Fried said she did not want to give the impression that she did not have any good American workers.

“There’s still great-quality kids here,” she said. “But finding them? It’s kind of like a needle in a haystack. And it’s a rare find. I found two amazing, amazing girls this summer. One from Madison, and one from the Wausau area. They were wonderful. But I had to kind of seek them out a little and it kind of came across in serendipity. They didn’t apply to my website or stuff. They’re definitely there, but there’s just a lot fewer of them. So when you find them, you’re like, ‘Wow! What a gift!’”

Richard Moore is the author of The New Bossism of the American Left and can be reached at www.rmmoore1.com.