Five years after the Great Recession officially ended, young people still face a particularly hard struggle to find jobs, with employment levels for the youngest of workers plunging to post-World War II lows.
In addition to the challenges faced by all job-seekers, young people are finding that more experienced workers are holding on to what were once considered entry-level jobs, and people old enough for Social Security have returned to the workplace.
The greater Charleston area has been no exception to this national trend, the Brookings Institution found in a new report on youth employment in the nation's largest 100 metro areas.
Trident Technical College student Brendan McPherson, 19, has volunteered with nonprofit groups and coached youth sports, and now has an unpaid internship, but has never had a paying job. He said he's applied at the sort of businesses where a teenager might expect to find work, including fast-food restaurants and retail stores at shopping malls.
"When I interview, they say, 'Where is your experience,' " said McPherson, of West Ashley. "No one has ever hired me."
In the region that includes Charleston, North Charleston and Summerville, employment levels among young workers remained substantially depressed in 2012, despite rebounding for those 25 and older, the Brookings study found. Greater Charleston placed roughly in the middle of the nation's largest metro areas in terms of youth employment.
For teens old enough to legally work, including high school graduates and college students like McPherson, it would seem the recession never ended.
Fewer than 27 percent of those ages 16-19 were employed in 2012 across the Charleston area, versus more than 40 percent in 2000.
"Some of that could be, in years past more people used to come out of high school and go straight to work," said Jamie Wood, Workforce Development Director at the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments. "I think that jobs, overall, are just harder to get."
"Jobs seem to be opening up again, but employers have a lot more people to choose from," he said. "They might be able to hire older, more experienced workers."
That's just what they are doing, the Brookings study suggests. And some of those more experienced workers are considerably older.
Doing the twist
In what the report describes as "a historically unprecedented age twist," employment nationwide among those under age 25 fell sharply, while employment among those 55 and older increased.
The "age twist" was particularly strong at the far ends of the age spectrum.
It used to be, the employment rate for teen workers across the U.S. was more than double that of retirement-age workers. However, by 2012 the employment rate for ages 16-19 was roughly the same as for those ages 65-74, with roughly a quarter of each age group working.
"It certainly changed the work dynamics, when folks who 10 years ago would have retired and stayed at home started returning to the workforce because they had to," Wood said.
The Brookings report suggests that youth joblessness could be reduced by incorporating more work-based learning such as apprenticeships and internships into education and job-training programs. The nonprofit research group also suggests making sure training programs meet regional job market needs, and says an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit could help.
In the Charleston area, public schools and higher education institutions have pursued many approaches to address job training, and initiatives have been taken to connect job training with anticipated needs. For example, Trident Tech plans to build a $79 million aerospace center to train people for jobs at Boeing Corp. and other aerospace companies in the region.
Still, having the right training or degree is no guarantee.
While teens have struggled to find a foothold in the workforce and gain experience, depressed job prospects for people in their early 20s have delayed careers.
"I have so many friends who graduated from college and are still working in restaurants," said Monica Lydiard, 30, of Sullivan's Island.
Lydiard, a certified nursing assistant, is working in a nursing home while studying to become a registered nurse. Nursing is one of those in-demand jobs that institutions, such as Trident, have been training people for, but Lydiard said it took months and many applications to land her current job.
Meanwhile, she worked as a caterer.
In Charleston, 23-year-old Kaitlyn Colclough expects to complete her Master of Business Administration at the College of Charleston in June. She'll have an MBA in addition to the bachelor's degree in marketing that she completed last year but is uncertain about how to find a good job.
A college degree helps. Employment rates steadily increase with levels of education, according to the Brookings study and other research, but there are other factors at play in job-finding.
"It seems like most people who have jobs got them through their parents," said Colclough, referring to her college friends.
Unlike many younger people, Colclough has been working since she was a teenager, starting at a fast food restaurant in her Louisiana hometown, and working summers during college in retail or restaurant jobs. For now, the college graduate and MBA candidate is an unpaid marketing intern at a nonprofit group.
Reach David Slade at 937-5552.