published Friday, March 14th, 2014

Jobs scarce for Chattanooga teens; decline here since 2000 among nation's worst

Jada Selby, 19, checks tickets at the entrance to the River Journey exhibit at the Tennessee Aquarium. Selby, who lives in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., and grew up in Dalton, Ga., has worked at the Tennessee Aquarium for nearly two years.
Jada Selby, 19, checks tickets at the entrance to the River Journey exhibit at the Tennessee Aquarium. Selby, who lives in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., and grew up in Dalton, Ga., has worked at the Tennessee Aquarium for nearly two years.
Photo by C. B. Schmelter.

Brookings analyzed the employment prospects for teens and young adults in the nation's largest 100 metropolitan areas since 2000. The report found that the labor market fortunes of young adults plummeted nationwide between 2000 and 2011. The young adult employment rate in the Chattanooga metropolitan area was among those hit the hardest in that span.

Highest employment rates among teens aged 16-19 for the year 2012:

1. Ogden-Clearfield, Utah 43.2%

2. Omaha-Council Bluffs, Neb/Iowa 42.3%

3. Des Moines, Iowa 42.2%

4. Salt Lake City, Utah 39.9%

5. Wichita, Kan. 38.3%

19. Knoxville, Tenn. 33.8%

22. Nashville, Tenn. 33.5%

74. Chattanooga, Tenn/Ga. 23.7%

83. Atlanta, Ga. 22%

90. Memphis, Tenn. 20.7%

100. Los Angeles, Calif. 16.9%

•••

Percentage change in 16-19-year-old employment since 2000:

20. Knoxville, Tenn. -10.9%

28. Nashville, Tenn. -12.1%

60. Memphis, Tenn. -16.5%

84. Atlanta, Ga. -20.1%

90. Chattanooga, Tenn. -23.1%

100. Cape Coral-Fort Myers, Fla. -27.4%

Poll
Did you have a job as a teenager?

The good old days when teenagers worked and developed useful life skills are more than just a figment of grandpa's nostalgic imagination — especially in Chattanooga.

A study released today by the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program examining the labor market fortunes of teens and young adults since 2000 shows a sharp nationwide decrease in the employment rate of young people.

And Chattanooga is one of the cities where the shift most noticeably occurred.

In 2000, almost half those ages 16-19 in the Chattanooga metropolitan area worked; by 2012, fewer than one in four worked, the study found.

A lack of teens in the workforce does not mean they are simply more interested in playing video games, however.

"What we've found is that there is a strong desire to go to work," said Martha Ross, a co-author of the report.

But anemic job growth and then the Great Recession forced adults into jobs normally held by lesser-educated, less-experienced people like teenagers.

"When there is a bad economy, it is harder for everybody to find jobs, and youths are disproportionately affected," Ross said. "It's because in some ways they are less attractive job candidates. They have less experience, smaller networks to connect them to job opportunities and by definition they have lower levels of education."

Still, the juvenile employment rate plummeted at a significantly higher rate here than in Memphis, Nashville or Knoxville through what some economists refer to as the "Lost Decade" of 2000 to 2010, when economic progress halted and unemployment rates rose.

Among the nation's largest 100 metropolitan areas, only Provo, Utah, saw an increase in the percentage of working teens during that time. But of the 100 cities examined in the survey, just 10 suffered steeper declines in the 16- to 19-year-old employment rate than Chattanooga, which dropped from No. 34 in 2000 to No. 74 in 2012.

While labor market problems affected all young people, the Brookings report found that whites and those from higher income households generally fared better in the labor market. The study also found that education and previous employment helped in finding work.

That is not lost on local leaders.

Al Chapman, president of Chattanooga's Front Porch Alliance, an organization working to promote community networking in the inner city, said he hopes the city will convert the recently acquired Harriet Tubman housing site into a venture that can provide work opportunities for youth.

"Kids need to work, period," Chapman said. "But especially with poor kids who don't have parents that can pick up the slack with an income, it's more stress on the poorer kids. The middle-class families can afford to pick up the slack and aren't in as bad of shape."

Initiatives spearheaded by Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke geared at fighting gang activity and crime are good, Chapman said. But he added it is important for something to be available to take the place of that activity, which is often a source of income.

The Front Porch Alliance is doing what it can through youth development programs to connect local youth with work opportunities, but Chapman said that is just a drop in the bucket in the spectrum of the issue.

"What are you going to replace that with if you tell [kids] to drop the illegal stuff [they're] doing," Chapman said. "A lot of these kids have children. There are a lot of stresses on kids we didn't have."

That is part of the reason why the city of Chattanooga changed the title of its Parks and Recreation Department to Youth and Family Development. The department's goal is to prioritize leadership opportunities and chances for work that will keep kids away from the streets and develop the skills needed to succeed in the work force.

"Myself and Mayor Berke are working to create opportunities in our department and encouraging companies to help us create employment opportunities for our teens as a part of our education initiative," said Lurone Jennings, administrator of the city's Youth and Family Development department.

Ross commended the efforts of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam to couple higher education with labor market demand, an aspect the report identified as critical to expanding the application of young workers.

Affordable alternatives to four-year universities like two-year colleges and technical schools are viable options for post-high school teens who might otherwise fall through the cracks after high school, Ross said.

That may not immediately help a high school junior seeking a part-time minimum wage job. But it will help the economy, and that will help young people find work again.

"The best thing that can happen for teens," Ross said, "is job growth."

Contact staff writer David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731.

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