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Young Workers in US Face Dire Labor Market

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US students

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The labor market in the United States is starting to show signs of recovery, but for many young workers the recovery is not happening fast enough.  Although the national unemployment rate is now the lowest it has been in two years, one study suggests the job prospects for 16 to 24-year-olds remains grim.

America's youth faces an increasingly uncertain future.  Despite a slowly improving job market, economist Heidi Shierholz at the Economic Policy Institute says young workers have yet to see similar gains.

"Young people across the board have never seen anything like this in 70 years," said Heidi  Shierholz. "Since the Great Depression we have not seen unemployment rates this high."

With unemployment rates more than twice the national average, Shierholz says the graduating Class of 2011 faces fierce competition for fewer jobs.

"New college grads are in direct competition with the cohort from last year and the cohort from the year before that, when the unemployment rate was also incredibly high, so there's just extremely stiff competition for new jobs for young people," she said.

George Washington University law student Elliot Reaven feels good about his career choices but he admits it is an intimidating economy for many students.

"I'm optimistic," said Elliot Reaven. "I think people are working on getting it better, but I think people are generally pretty discouraged right now and I'm with that sentiment."

Instead of having to compete against experienced workers for fewer entry level jobs, chemistry student Dan Foreman plans to ride out the storm until the economy improves.

"They're not looking too good right now, so I plan to go to grad[uate] school, get my Ph.D. and maybe then I'll have a more marketable degree," said Dan Foreman.

But times have changed.  Professor Ayman Tarabishy at GW's (George Washington University's) School of Business says degrees are no longer as important as marketable skills.    

"Don't just mention that you graduated from X school or Y school and this is the degree you have," said Professor Tarabishy. "What employers are looking for is what skills can you bring to the table right now, what impact can you have and what is your knowledge level."

Journalism student Nicole Mann graduates next year.  She says students must not lose sight of their goals, but she says they also need to be flexible.

"Even if you're offered a job that's outside of what you'd like to do, I would say, 'Yes,' and take it as much as you can because it can help lift you up in unexpected ways," said Nicole Mann.

"I think it's a wake up call  for everybody -  for the government, for parents, for employers, but also for the young people," said Tarabishy. "t's not business as usual anymore. Things change, there's new rules to the game and they need to figure it our very fast."

The Economic Policy Institute says the great tragedy is that young workers have fewer safety nets.
Shierholz says many graduating students who cannot find jobs will not qualify for unemployment benefits.

"Young workers who have essentially no other safety net - the labor market has been pulled out from under them," she said. "They end up having to depend on their family and friends who may themselves be having adverse labor market outcomes."

Shierholz says the good news is that job growth in the last six months has been consistently above numbers needed to keep up with normal population growth.  She says her biggest worry is the heated political climate in Washington that appears increasingly willing to sacrifice job growth to reduce the nation's growing debt.

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