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Cascade: No. 78, Fall 2011

The Collapse of the Labor Market for 16– to 24–Year–Olds

Young adulthood — between the ages of 16 and 24 — is a critically important time for individuals to develop work-related abilities so that they can become productive members of society. In other words, this is the time when young people make important decisions about developing what economist Frederick Harbison calls their “human capital,” that is, the “energies, skills, talents and knowledge…which can be applied to the production of goods or the rendering of useful services.”1

Young people who are not engaged in work or school do not adequately develop their productive abilities, resulting in diminished lifetime earnings.2

Employment is an important way for young adults to acquire human capital in the form of work experience and behavioral traits. These behavioral traits, or soft skills, such as reliability, honesty, respectfulness, and communications competencies, are customarily acquired from paid labor market work experience and are valued by employers. Unfortunately, opportunities for young people to acquire work experience have been declining during the past decade. Even during the economic recovery after the 2001 recession, opportunities for the nation’s youth to find work have continued to decline.

Declines in Employment Opportunities for Young Adults

Many of the nation’s young adults have withdrawn from active participation in the labor market and stopped looking for work. This trend is evident in the sharp reductions in the youth labor force participation rates. Across the nation, the share of teens actively engaged in the labor market has declined from 52 percent in 2000 to 35 percent in 2010. There have also been large decreases in the number of 20– to 24-year-olds in the labor force. The labor force participation rate of these young adults declined from nearly 78 percent in 2000 to just over 71 percent in 2010 (see Table 1).

Along with the sharp decline in the labor force attachment of young people over the past decade, the likelihood that a young person — who chooses to remain engaged in the job market — will be employed has also fallen considerably. The youth unemployment rate, which measures the proportion of young people in the labor force who are jobless but are actively trying to find work, doubled over the first decade of the 21st century. The nation’s teen unemployment rate rose from 13 percent in 2000 to 26 percent in 2010. Among young adults between the ages of 20 and 24, the unemployment rate increased from 7 percent in 2000 to over 15 percent in 2010 (see Table 1). It seems likely that part of the labor force withdrawal of young people that occurred over the past decade is a product of the extraordinary rise in unemployment rates among teens and young adults. As young people see reduced opportunities for finding employment, they stop their job search and effectively withdraw from the labor force.

Table 1: Labor Market Outcomes of U.S. Teens and Young Adults;
2000, 2007, and 2010
Absolute Change
Relative Change
16–19 Years of Age
Labor force participation rate
Unemployment rate
Employment rate
20–24 Years of Age
Labor force participation rate
Unemployment rate
Employment rate

Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Survey, Monthly Public Use Data Files — 2000, 2007, and 2010, tabulations by the Center for Labor Markets and Policy, Drexel University

Rising labor force withdrawals and unemployment among the nation’s youth have resulted in a sharp decline in the youth employment rate, which is a measure of the share of all young people who have a job. The employment rate of young adults 16 to 19 years of age declined from 45 percent in 2000 to 35 percent in 2007. Since 2007, the employment rate has fallen another 9 percentage points, to 26 percent in 2010 — which is a historical low. The employment rate of 20- to 24-year-olds in the nation declined from 72 percent in 2000 to 68 percent in 2007. The rate further dropped to 60 percent in 2010, representing a decline of 8 percentage points during the three years that included the Great Recession (see Table 1).

A student receives training in the culinary vocational program at Shawsheen Valley Technical High School in Billerica, MA, 20 miles northwest of Boston. The school integrates vocational-technical and academic curricula.A student receives training in the culinary vocational program at Shawsheen Valley Technical High School in Billerica, MA, 20 miles northwest of Boston. The school integrates vocational-technical and academic curricula.

In 2010, only one in four teens and six out of 10 young adults in the nation were employed. The Great Recession has simply exacerbated the increasingly tenuous employment situation among the nation’s youth that characterized the earlier period of recession and recovery. The current environment of slow/no job growth that the country has experienced since the end of the recession in June 2009 has made the nation’s labor markets very competitive, as large numbers of unemployed workers chase very few jobs. Over the first half of this year, the ratio of unemployed workers to job vacancies has remained in the 4.5 to 5.0 range.3

Young people are competing for jobs with adults and increasingly with older workers. We have found that nationally employers have shown a preference for older workers (55 years of age and older) — even for jobs that were traditionally staffed by young people. The share of older workers in the nation’s workforce has increased from 17 percent in 2006 to 20 percent in 2010, with increases occurring across all industries and occupations.4 In the absence of policies and strategies targeted toward creating employment pathways for young adults, a rebound in youth employment is unlikely in this environment.

Postsecondary Education as a Career Alternative

The collapse of the teen labor market over the past few years has led an increasing number of teens and young adults to seek postsecondary education, accelerating the long-term trend of more and more teens and young adults enrolling in the nation’s postsecondary schools. In its October supplement to the annual Current Population Survey, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that a record share (70 percent) of 2009 high school graduates entered into a postsecondary program in the fall immediately after graduation; the 2010 share was nearly as great. One explanation for this record college enrollment rate is that, as the job prospects for teens deteriorated so significantly, they have sought an alternative activity in the form of schooling instead of remaining idle. It is likely that some of these young people would not have enrolled in school if more plentiful job opportunities were available to them.

Much of the rise in postsecondary enrollments has occurred in the nation’s community college system. These open enrollment institutions have experienced total enrollment increases in the 15 to 20 percent range since the beginning of the recession, placing great stress on this segment of the higher education system. Per capita full-time student funding is well below that of the four-year higher education system, yet the community colleges enroll students with low basic skills proficiencies compared with other college students. The share of their entering cohort of newly minted high school graduates enrolled in at least one remedial class is often reported as well over 50 percent.5 With their origins as two-year transfer institutions, community colleges often offer a curricular mix that is heavily weighted toward remedial and general academic courses. Despite this, a surprisingly large share of those who complete community college programs do so in occupationally oriented fields of study, such as health, information technology, and business-related fields, that are closely tied to the labor market. However, these programs are both expensive to operate and are selective in student admission. Yet their links to the labor market make them important pathways to success for young people too often disconnected from the world of work.

Unfortunately, for a variety of academic, personal, and institutional reasons, including much lower funding levels for community colleges, many community college-bound students do not persist to completion and drop out of school without any postsecondary credentials. However, for those students who are able to complete a course of study, the gains to earning a degree can be quite substantial.6 But most of the labor market gains to enrolling in a community college appear to be associated with completing a degree or, in some instances, completing a long-term certificate program as well as gaining access to employment in occupations appropriate for college graduates;7 enrolling in a community college but not earning a degree yields little net benefit in the labor market.

Challenges Faced by Urban Teens and Young Adults

A student receives training in plumbing, one of the vocational programs in construction trades at Shawsheen Valley Technical High School in Billerica, MA. The school, which opened in 1970, has a population of more than 1,300 students.A student receives training in plumbing, one of the vocational programs in construction trades at Shawsheen Valley Technical High School in Billerica, MA. The school, which opened in 1970, has a population of more than 1,300 students.

Young adults in the nation’s urban areas consistently have very poor connections to the job market, and the Great Recession has further weakened these connections. For example, even before the onset of the Great Recession, Philadelphia teens had very low rates of participation in the labor market. During 2006–07, only 36 out of every 100 Philadelphia teens were actively participating in the labor market by either working or actively looking for work. By 2009–10, the labor force participation rate among the city’s teens had sharply declined to just 27 percent (see chart below).

Among the city’s teens who did participate in the labor market, the likelihood of finding a job was quite low before the recession and dropped sharply during the recession. The unemployment rate among Philadelphia teens more than doubled during the Great Recession. In 2009–10, 33 percent of all teens who opted to remain in the much shrunken teen labor force were unemployed, up from 13 percent in 2006–07.

Large declines in teen labor force participation, combined with sharp increases in the teen unemployment rate, have resulted in woefully low levels of employment among Philadelphia’s teens. In 2006–07 before the start of the most recent recession, only 31 percent of the city’s teens were employed. The Great Recession further reduced employment opportunities for this age group. In 2009–10, only 18 out of every 100 teens in Philadelphia were employed, providing clear evidence of a collapse in the teen labor market in the city.

Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Survey, Monthly Public Use Data Files, various years, tabulations by the Center for Labor Markets and Policy, Drexel University.Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Survey, Monthly Public Use Data Files, various years, tabulations by the Center for Labor Markets and Policy, Drexel University.

The findings — not just for Philadelphia, but for the nation as a whole — reveal a very serious and growing problem of teen disconnection from the job market, leaving new high school graduates with the choice of either postsecondary enrollment or idleness, with little chance of starting a career that further develops skills through the job market. Education strategy in the United States seems almost exclusively focused on postsecondary enrollment after high school, with little consideration to connecting new high school graduates to career employment opportunities.

The Need for More Career and Technical Education Programs

For many young people, however, college has not proven to be a solid pathway to success and increasingly looks like a “one-size-fits-all” solution. Secondary schools need to determine how to connect with employers and convince them that their graduates are worthy of hiring. To do this, these schools must develop career and technical education (CTE) programs at the secondary level that are closely tied to the job market. Well-organized CTE programs at the secondary level provide students with a focus on learning that is connected to developing career skills that are valued by employers.8

Dating back to the late 1960s, but substantially re-organized as a result of education reform and high stakes testing in recent years, the best CTE programs are delivered at secondary schools that are organized as independent high schools with a single focus on occupational and career education. Students attend classes in their field of study or “shop” that are organized to better integrate academic and occupational skills development; therefore, these programs provide a real-world context for students to develop their academic skills — especially reading, writing, and math — alongside their occupational proficiencies. Moreover, these institutions have very strong links to the local labor markets, which are often based on employer advisory committees developed for each shop at the school. These committees help guide curriculum decisions and equipment purchases and are frequently important sources of jobs for new graduates. The evidence suggests that schools organized in this fashion generate strong positive outcomes for their graduates.9

Massachusetts has developed what some observers have characterized as the “Cadillac” version of CTE programs. This model secondary education program was in part spurred by education reform efforts in the early 1990s. The CTE system responded to reform and high stakes testing by integrating academic and occupational activities in high schools exclusively dedicated to a CTE curriculum. The high schools that have CTE programs are organized to offer a wide range of occupational choices, often 15 to 20 major fields of study. The curriculum seeks to integrate academic and occupational learning in a given trade and focuses on developing skills that can be used in the job market.

Many students in their junior and senior years participate in paid cooperative educational programs that provide them with additional training-related work experience. After their freshman year, students rotate through six different shops as part of a career exploration effort, and then they choose an occupational area of specialization (e.g., auto repair, graphic design, or medical assistant) and develop academic, occupational, and behavioral proficiencies in a contextual setting.

The 10th grade English language proficiency scores skyrocketed as secondary CTE programs moved to the integrated academic occupational models. In 2003, just 35 percent of CTE students scored at a proficient or advanced level on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test that many consider to be the most rigorous high stakes test in the country, with most of the remainder passing with a low “needs improvement.” By 2010, however, the share of Massachusetts CTE students scoring at the proficient or advanced level rose to 71 percent. Similarly, large improvements were made in the fraction achieving proficient/advanced scores in math. Indeed, by 2010, the large gap that existed in 2003 in the test scores between CTE students and those enrolled at traditional comprehensive high schools had been considerably reduced. Moreover, these CTE schools accomplished this gain in test scores as their four-year graduation rate rose to 90 percent, indicating that these schools were able to raise test scores while reducing dropout rates (see Table 2).

These gains were not the result of enrolling elite students. In fact, the share of CTE students who are learning disabled or have some other kind of disability is nearly 50 percent greater than those of other secondary schools, and these schools have much higher fractions of educationally disadvantaged students than other schools. Moreover, unlike the programs at comprehensive schools, for years Massachusetts CTE programs have tracked their students into the job market and into postsecondary education. Most graduates have transitioned into training-related placements or higher education programs.

Table 2: Trends in Massachusetts Secondary High Stakes Test Score Proficiency Levels And Graduation Rates, 2003–2010
All Secondary Schools
CTE Secondary Schools
10th Grade English Language Arts Scoring Proficient or Advanced
10th Grade Math Scoring Proficient or Advanced
Graduation Rate

Source: Massachusetts Department of Education, School Reports, downloaded July 2011


Higher education is clearly an important alternative for many high school graduates, but it is too often the only pathway to employment for young people, especially in our cities. We need to rebuild these pathways — starting at the high school level — so that students develop not just academic competencies, but occupational and behavioral traits as well, because these qualities are valued by employers. This task is not a trivial one. The decision by an employer to hire a new employee is a difficult one.

Employers have a great deal of difficulty assessing candidates. Résumés and interviews are not very good predictors of future productivity. In addition, references from other employers and teachers are often considered unreliable by employers.10 The labor market is a social institution fraught with all the pitfalls of human personality and behavior. Yet when employers seek to hire workers who can contribute to productivity in their organization, they must not only have information about the knowledge skills and abilities that the job candidate has developed, but they must also have some reasonable understanding that the new hire will possess the personality and behavioral traits that fit into the norms of a given workplace.

This means that these high schools must build long-term relationships with a variety of employers; in addition, these schools must develop reputations as being solid and reliable sources for providing entry-level workers in specific occupational areas. These relationships between individual employers and shop teachers, high school job developers, and frequently high school senior management must be built on trust. This trust is based on the school’s knowledge of the hiring requirements of firms and on the firms’ general understanding of the capabilities of the graduates from the high school.

Rebuilding high school connections to the job market is not a simple task. It will take considerable investments of capital to build an effective, modern-day CTE program and recruit faculty capable of teaching in a context that integrates academic and occupational instruction. But of equal importance, it means that high schools need to work to build long-term relationships with local employers — one firm at a time — to rebuild the trust that is at the center of virtually any program that transitions individuals into the job market.

For information, contact Neeta P. Fogg at 215-895-2200 or fogg@drexel.edu E-Mail Address, or Paul E. Harrington at 215-571-3855 or paul.e.harrington@drexel.edu E-Mail Address; http://www.drexel.edu/provost/clmp/index.html External Link.

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