Jobs are plentiful, but Idaho teens aren’t working

Wayne Hoffman Articles, Regulations Leave a Comment

Though their population has increased, there are fewer Idaho teenagers in the workforce than there were 20 years ago. In 1998, more than 25,000 Idahoans between the ages of 14 and 18 were employed, two decades later, about 24,500 Idaho youngsters earn a paycheck, according to government data.

That four percent drop in the number of young employees today versus 1998 is amplified by the fact that Idaho’s population was 1.2 million then, and 1.7 million now. The state’s total workforce has grown by 35 percent.

And while policymakers are stoked about Idaho’s unemployment rate remaining below 3 percent, the job participation rate for Idahoans age 16-19 stands at about 41 percent.

The impact of youth unemployment on Idaho’s labor market is palpable, with consequences both immediate and long term. Today, employers are practically pleading for people to come work for them. Help wanted signs abound, but too few applicants are in the queue. Auto shops, lawn care companies, restaurants, stores, and many others worry about filling positions. Customers complain about long waits for service, but there are too few employees to respond to rising demand. More young workers could certainly help fill the gap.

Young people who stay out of the workforce until their later years arrive in the workforce lacking basic skills they should have acquired earlier in life. Employers fret about young adults they’ve hired who can’t perform menial tasks, or who can’t perform either as part of a team or independently. Such employees either won’t remain employed or will be the first on the chopping block when the labor market invariably contracts. Lacking a job, these skill-free teens will be the first to sign up for government entitlement programs.

Part of the jobless teen problem rests with state and federal employment laws, born of an early 20th-century movement to limit child labor, which keep many youngsters from entering the workforce. The federal law also requires that the more stringent of state or federal laws apply, and there are plenty of more-stringent Idaho laws, which haven’t been updated in more than 100 years. These strict state laws keep young people out of securing meaningful employment.

Idaho is also to blame for not pushing back hard against federal labor laws that are beyond the constitutional scope and authority of the federal government. It’s strange that many states have summoned the courage to defy federal laws when it comes to, say, marijuana, but haven’t done the same thing when it comes to encouraging youth productivity and employment.  

My family has always valued hard work, and it’s a quality I’ve tried to instill in my own children, who are now productive adults.

I’m 47, and I’ve been working for more than 35 years. Before I was a teenager, my first job involved helping my dad repair commercial and residential heating, refrigeration, and air conditioning equipment. The tasks often entailed scaling ladders to rooftops, or navigating crawl spaces or attics, carrying tools, or heavy tanks of Freon. I spent the latter part of my teen years in media and public policy, getting up in the early hours to write news, interview politicians, and play records at the local radio station. Those experiences shaped who I am and gave me the experiences I needed to score the jobs that followed.

We need to acknowledge that many young people here in Idaho will spend idle hours this summer playing video games and streaming shows on Netflix, when a job isn’t too far away, and that’s a fault of many parents and the government. It would take so little to realign and modernize Idaho’s public policies so that a new generation of young people could learn valuable skills, appreciate a hard day’s work, and the resulting benefits of earning a paycheck.