Job prospects for local teens and young adults suffered during the Great Recession, but compared with other U.S. metro areas, the Omaha-Council Bluffs area remains one of the best places for youths to find work, a new study has found.
A report being published today by the Brookings Institution places Omaha fourth among the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas for the percentage of 16- to 19-year-olds who were employed in 2012, and fifth for those ages 20 to 24.
However, the employment rate for the teen group fell significantly, to an estimated 42 percent from nearly 56 percent in 2000. An author of the report estimated that nearly 7,000 fewer local teens were employed in 2012 compared with a dozen years earlier. The rate for Omaha workers ages 20 to 24 fell 2 percentage points to 75.3 percent.
Teens' declining job prospects over those years affected people like Nikki Love, now 24. Love grew up in Omaha among peers who saw more opportunity in gangs and drugs than in work, and she entered adulthood at the start of the recession. Today she participates in the YouthBuild program, where she learns construction skills and is preparing to pass her GED exam. She expects to graduate in July two days before her 25th birthday.
“We do need more opportunities,” said Love, who has worked in fast-food restaurants and in food service. “We have people who messed up, and want to change. I don't know about them, but I want to do more.”
When young people aren't working, they're finding other ways to fill their time, including drug use and gang activity, said Justin Dougherty, director of workforce services for Goodwill in Omaha, which oversees the federally funded YouthBuild.
Dougherty said his observations in Omaha mirror the report's findings that teens hit hardest were those from lower-income households and those with lower levels of education. Nationally, high school dropouts like Love saw their employment prospects plummet: More than half were employed in 2000, while just 28 percent were in 2011.
The job losses affect more than just a teen's ability to pay her phone bill. Early work experience helps teens build their resumes and learn skills like punctuality and customer service. Losing that opportunity can have long-term consequences. The report's authors said reduced work experience for high school students is associated with lower employment rates and earnings in later years.
“We know how valuable it is for our youth to have a real-world work experience, to prepare them to be valuable employees or business owners in the future,” Nebraska Labor Commissioner Catherine Lang said. “They are our future workforce.”
Not only was it harder for youths to find jobs during and after the recession, younger workers were among the first to be laid off, Lang said.
“It was a class of people that were hard hit,” Lang said.
At the same time, a greater percentage of older people were employed after the recession than before, hanging onto jobs longer in part to make up for losses in retirement savings. Brookings called this the “great age twist.”
In 2013, 26.8 percent of Nebraskans 65 and older were employed, up from 21.5 percent a decade earlier, for about 25,000 more employed senior citizens, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employment also rose for Nebraskans ages 55 to 64, by 2.2 percentage points, or 60,000 more workers among this fast-growing cohort of baby boomers.
Better-educated young people and those from higher-income families fared better than their low-income peers, Brookings researchers said. Students from families with incomes above $60,000 saw employment fall significantly but still were employed in greater numbers than those with household incomes below $40,000.
At Millard West High School, a survey of graduating seniors showed that 87 percent of the Class of 2013 held a job at some point during high school, with most of those students reporting having worked between 11 and 20 hours a week.
Director of guidance Linda Brewer, who has been in her position since 2001, said she did not observe changes to the number or types of jobs available to her students during the recession. And since the recession, she said, she has noticed more employers hiring for part-time rather than full-time jobs, which would benefit high school students.
In the last year or two, she said, “We just seem to be getting a lot more response from the business community, as far as, they'd like to have their jobs posted.”
Amid expanded commercial development in west Omaha, job postings at Millard West come from fast-food restaurants, grocery stores, retail shops, telemarketing centers and lawn and garden services, while some students start their own lawn-care services or teach private music lessons, Brewer said.
By contrast, a typical teen or young adult in north Omaha, where there are fewer retail outlets, restaurants and office buildings, would have fewer opportunities for work accessible to him or her, Dougherty said. He said lack of transportation, including limited bus routes, is a significant barrier for teens looking for work.
Brookings said Omaha is home to some 10,425 “disconnected youth,” people ages 16 through 24 who are not working, not in school and have less than an associate's degree. They're at a higher risk for poverty and unemployment as adults.
For some Omaha youths it takes willpower to avoid joining those ranks. Northwest High School junior Tre'Shawn Abram said most men in his family are involved in gangs, drugs and violence. An uncle's death in 2007, when Tre'Shawn was a boy, was his motivation to be different.
“Just because your family is down that path, you don't have to follow that,” he said.
The 16-year-old hopes to be a police officer and participates in the Law Enforcement Explorer program through the Omaha Police Department and Boy Scouts of America. Explorers learn about police procedure, accident and criminal investigations, radio communications and other aspects of the job.
It's a lonely choice. Abram doesn't attend family functions and said he has few friends. Instead, he said, his mother, grandmother and pastor are his support system.
“At school they avoid me,” he said. “They say I'm the 'school cop.' ”
He enjoys the smaller group atmosphere of an Upward Bound college preparation program and said, “They all get to know the real me.”
Abram also stays busy with his church and on Wednesday started a new job as a Walgreens cashier, relying on his grandmother for a ride to work.
For youths who have the motivation to work, and a ride to get there, opportunities abound in Omaha, and numerous programs exist to connect them with jobs and internships.
City of Omaha recreation coordinator Mark Caughey said he recruits year-round, looking to hire more than 300 teens a year to staff summer youth programs and swimming pools. He said the city jobs pay between $8 and $12 an hour in order to compete with private businesses, and are considered some of the more fun jobs teens could have.
Mayor Jean Stothert last month announced another year of the city's Step-Up Omaha! summer jobs program, in which the city works with the Empowerment Network to connect Omahans ages 14 to 21 with work. The goal is to hire 500 youths this year, and City Councilman Ben Gray asked more businesses and philanthropists to get involved so the program can grow.
At the college level, several state agencies collaborate on the InternNE, an internship grant program now in its fourth year that connects college students with employers. A total of 623 interns have been hired through the program. The Department of Labor has also recently produced a new series of videos, online at www.NEcareertours.com, to teach students about Nebraska employment opportunities.
An author of the Brookings report said programs like these are essential and should be expanded. Successful programs tend to link secondary education with postsecondary training, and they also integrate education with job training and work readiness skills.
“Omaha is relatively fortunate compared to other metros, but it's still a problem,” said Martha Ross, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. “We need to do a lot more for high school graduates who have no immediate plans to go into postsecondary education, so that they don't just flounder in the labor market.”