Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

Young and unemployed in America

Dishwasher. Salesclerk. Cashier.

When many of us were teenagers, these “exciting job opportunities” – as they were billed by many a parent tired of giving handouts to their kids – were, for the most part, readily available.

Indeed, as a dishwasher at Toll Gate Restaurant in Slingerlands, N.Y., working a six-hour shift cleaning an unholy mess of sauerkraut mixed with ice cream off dinner plates, I would have said those jobs were much too available.

But it’s a funny thing: that job, my first, ended up teaching me more than almost any other.

Fast forward to summer 2010. School is wrapping up for the year and thousands of young people are submitting their credentials to local restaurant managers, shop owners and overworked parents of small children.

And if last summer is any indication, for those teens looking for gainful employment beyond changing a diaper, walking a dog or cutting grass for a neighbor, the odds of a successful job search are seriously stacked.

With the state Dept. of Employment Security releasing figures on Tuesday showing Clark County’s unemployment rate for May virtually unchanged at 13 percent, these young people are competing for entry-level jobs with older, more skilled employees pushed off higher rungs of the job market.

So what’s the big deal? Compared to the desperate situation of an out-of-work former breadwinner, the plight of an unemployed teen seems miniscule.

But here’s what I think is at stake and what may be the hidden casualty of the longest economic downturn since the Great Depression:

Some call it the Great American Work Ethic. Others just call it work. In any case, it’s the force of nature creating engineers, insurance salespeople and yes, even newspaper editors.

That sound you are hearing right now? Well, it’s not the sound of young people complaining about the highest teen unemployment rate since World War II. And if you are looking for packs of young men and women hitting the streets with nothing to do – look again. A recent study found that by the time the typical American male hits 21, they will have spent 10,000 hours playing videogames. And while data is not presently available, I’m sure if you studied a group of typical teenage girls, a similar amount of time will have been devoted to texting.

So don’t worry, these unemployed teens will keep busy.

I know I’m lumping a lot of hardworking kids into the jobless mix, generalizing as adults usually do where teenagers are concerned. But a good number of young people will move forward into adulthood without the formative employment experience enjoyed by people like Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who worked as a computer programmer during his senior year of high school, or investment god Warren Buffett, fixing pinball machines in small-town barber shops.

Or for that matter, this editor, who was called “Gomer Pyle” by his coworkers for an entire summer after accidentally toppling three stacks of glassware onto his employer’s head.

Because no matter how unrewarding, awkward and embarrassing one’s first job is, in terms of our future workforce, nothing teaches like experience.