Finding a job

The good news: the economy is slowly improving. The bad news: job prospects for young people are still dim.

The economy’s lopsided impact on young people has ugly implications for our future: our lifetime career and earnings prospects, our ability to pay down college debt, our decisions about whether and when we can launch a business, purchase a home, get married, raise a family, save for retirement…in other words, our capacity to become productive, independent contributors to society. Or at least move out of our parents’ basements.

We cannot afford to wait this out.

Unemployed and underemployment

While the nation is transitioning from Great Recession to (tepid) recovery, the economic picture is much grimmer for our generation.

People under 25 were nearly twice as likely to be unemployed as the general population in 2011 (17.4% vs. 8.9%).[2] Total jobs for 18-34 year-olds still hover 2.5 million below pre-recession levels.[3] And those numbers mask both the 35% of 18-34 year-olds who say they’ve gone back to school as a result of the bad economy[4] and those who no longer count as “unemployed” because they’ve given up searching for work altogether.

Even when we do find work, we’re still experiencing fallout. Half of jobs held by recent college grads qualify as “underemployment” requiring a high school diploma or less.[5] The stats read like a bad cliché: more of us are wait staff, bartenders, and baristas than engineers, chemists, and physicists (100,000 vs. 90,000).[6]

Long-Term Damage

If you think these are temporary setbacks, think again.

Graduating during a recession means reduced earnings, greater earnings instability, and more spells of unemployment for up to fifteen years.[7] Wages for college grads under 25 have declined 5.4% since 2000, compared with 19.1% wage growth between 1995 and 2000.[8]

These consequences of recession are wrenching open a generational wealth gap that has been growing steadily since we were born. For households over 65, median net worth (assets minus debt) grew by 42% between 1984 and 2009. For those of us under 35, it plummeted 68%.[9] A number of worrisome trends converge in that gap between younger and older Americans: increased student debt burdens, delayed entry into the job market, delayed pursuit of career advancement, delayed wealth accumulation, delayed marriage, delayed home ownership…

What happens to a dream deferred? Our generation is in the process of finding out.

No Qualified Applicants?

Half of U.S. employers report trouble finding qualified job applicants. Millions of educated, motivated young people are sending out résumé after résumé. Something doesn’t add up.

Usually called the “skills” or “talent gap,” this mismatch is also an information gap. Job seekers must have accurate, current, user-friendly tools and information about what the market needs and where before they can make the smart decisions about training and location that will lead to successful outcomes.

For instance, the US overproduces an estimated 4,640 marketing majors per year based on projected demand.[10] How many of these students might choose a different path if that information were easy to access and digest? Alternatively, how many of them might make a strategic move instead of staying underemployed in their current location if they knew where regional skills shortages were creating pockets of demand in their field?

This information gap hurts employers too. Almost unbelievably, “lack of available applicants/no applicants” topped the list of reasons U.S. companies said they had trouble hiring in a 2012 Manpower survey, ahead of all skills, experience, or salary considerations.[11]

But employers also need to change how they recruit and develop the talent they need—particularly when it comes to ushering young workers into the labor force. 44% of U.S. companies cite applicants’ lack of experience in similar positions as an obstacle to hiring whereas fewer than 5% perceive a lack of employability skills like critical/analytical thinking, interpersonal skills, motivation, problem solving, or attention to detail. This snapshot implies not a shortage of quality candidates but a reluctance to invest in training for promising but inexperienced candidates.

That reluctance hurts both employers, whose productivity is hampered by unfilled positions, and the job prospects of recent grads, whose degrees tend to impart precisely those soft “employability” skills rather than the hard, industry-specific experience companies say they want. If employers expect to shift the responsibility and expense of job training onto students, they should partner more closely with educational institutions to develop candidates with the specific skills they need. Likewise, young people should realize that college degrees alone won’t translate into employment and seek out opportunities to build skills that are in demand.

Building the next Virginia economy

In the fall of 2014, Governor Terry McAuliffe announced that Virginia faced a $2.4 billion revenue shortfall over two years. The cause? Cutbacks in federal spending that’s fueled Northern Virginia and Hampton Road’s military contracting industry over the past few decades. Since then, lawmakers have been looking for policy solutions to diversify the state’s economy. A robust higher education system will inevitably have to be part of the answer. Building the next Virginia economy requires investing in the next Virginia workforce, and releasing that workforce from the financial restraints of student debt.


[1] Pew Research Center, “The Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open to Change.” February 2010; Young Invincibles, “Millennials: An Entrepreneurial Generation,” 2011; Corporation for National and Community Service, “Volunteering in America Research Highlights,” July 2009

[2] 2011 Current Population Survey data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics

[3] Young Invincibles Policy Brief, “New Poll Finds More Than Half of Millennials Want To Start Businesses” November 2011

[4] Pew Research Center, “Young, Underemployed, and Optimistic” February 2012

[5] Associated Press report on analysis of 2011 Current Population Survey data by Northeastern University

[6] Ibid.

[7] Economic Policy Institute Report, “The Class of 2012: Labor market for young graduates remains grim” May 2012

[8] Ibid.

[9] Pew Research Center, “The Rising Age Gap in Economic Wellbeing,” November 2011.

[10] Chmura Economics and Analytics, “Job Demand Forecasting” August 2010 presentation to Governor McDonnell’s Commission on Higher Education Reform, Innovation and Investment

[11] ManpowerGroup,“2012 Talent Shortage Survey Research Results,”