Andy Puzder, Donald Trump's first pick for Labor Secretary, talked about declining job opportunities for teenagers this week in the Wall Street Journal:
"The importance of entry-level jobs is hard to overstate. I can still recall when the franchise owner of the Baskin-Robbins where I worked as a teen called me into her office and handed me a key, telling me to open up the place in the morning. It was perhaps the proudest day of my professional career. I felt the kind of pride and self-confidence that can keep a person working (or in school) and off the streets. But to get that experience you need the first job."
Puzder argues that a $15 minimum wage could push fast food places to automate and eliminate jobs for young workers, but the challenge facing teenage workers pre-dates the current minimum-wage debate (which NumbersUSA takes no position on). According to the Federal Reserve, the youth employment rate has dropped by half since the 1980s.
Andrew Sum of Northwestern University says teenagers in the aggregate received none of the 5.2 million jobs created between 2009 and 2015. "All the new jobs in fast food went to older workers and immigrants, not one of them went to a teenager," he told PBS Newshour.
The trends against hiring teenagers started even before the recession and recovery. Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies:
"Between 1994 and 2007, for every 10 percent increase in the immigrant share of a state's workforce, there was an 8 percent decline in the share of teenagers in that state's workforce. Clearly, immigration is not the only factor in the declining employment among teenagers, but it is a big factor."
According to Bloomberg, other labor economists say that "the single-biggest explanation for the decline is that teenagers face stiff competition for what were once summer jobs from other workers, especially immigrants."
Employers would simply rather not hire a teenager when an older worker is available.
"Employers can choose from a larger pool of relatively unskilled adults with more job experience than teenagers and that's what they're doing," Gary Burtless, a labor economist from the Brookings Institute, told Bloomberg.
It is hard to blame the employers. Given the choice to hire someone with work experience and responsibilities at home (paying rent; supporting a family) and a teenager with no work experience at all, which applicant would you prefer?
Our immigration system, however, has been constructed as if employers should never have to hire a teenager again.
Guest worker programs like the H-2B visa, J-1 visa, and the Summer Work Travel program make it easier for employers to fill summer jobs with workers from other countries than workers from other towns or states.
And Chain Migration policies that prioritize extended-family connections over skills ensure a steady supply of less-skilled but experienced workers to compete for those after-school jobs (23 percent of immigrants in 2013 did not have a high school diploma).
Fast food jobs have traditionally been a gateway to the workforce for teenagers. Not anymore. If Andy Puzder were a teenager today, he probably couldn't get a job at Baskin-Robbins much less be entrusted with opening the store.
JEREMY BECK is the Director of the Media Standards Project for NumbersUSA
Updated: Thu, May 11th 2017 @ 3:01pm EDT