Economic Recovery: Youth Employment

In spring 2021, jobs across Portland Metro were rebounding from losses suffered during the pandemic. While employment has not reached the pre-pandemic peak, Portland Metro added 40,400 jobs between May 2020 and May 2021. (Table 1) The unemployment rate is at a fourteen-month low. (Table 2)

Portland Metro is not alone. Across the United States, the economy is rebounding. While jobs are returning, changes to the job market and the labor force remain. One surprising area of growth was youth employment.

In May 2021, nearly 5.5 million 16- to 19-year-old workers were employed in the United States. This represented an increase of 70,000 from the previous month. More significantly, it was 422,000 more youths employed in May 2021 than in May 2019. (Table 3)

Youth Labor Force Participation and Unemployment

Youth participation in the labor force has been declining for decades. In Oregon, the labor force participation rate (LFPR) for young adults (16 to 19) peaked at sixty-four percent in 1989. By 2015, it had fallen to a low of thirty-four percent.[1] (Table 4) The national LFPR peaked a decade before Oregon’s, hitting fifty-eight percent in 1979. It reached a low point of thirty-four percent in 2014. (Table 4a)

Youth who do participate in the labor force experience higher rates of unemployment compared with other age groups. In May 2020, the national unemployment rate for 16 to 19-year-olds was thirty percent. (Table 6) A year earlier it was just under thirteen percent. For white workers, the unemployment rate was 28.3 percent, for Black workers it was 34.9 percent, and for Latinx workers it was 37.4 percent.[2] (Table 6a)

At the beginning of the pandemic, youth were one of the hardest hit groups when it came to job losses and unemployment. (Table 5) The official unemployment rate is likely an undercount of youth who lost their jobs. Workers are required be at their jobs for a period of time before they are eligible to file for unemployment. Youth who are living with their parents might not be aware they are eligible to file for UI benefits.

Why are more young adults working?

The sectors with high rates of youth employment have gained back jobs but are still far from pre-pandemic employment levels. In the Portland MSA, there were thirty-eight percent fewer Arts, Entertainment, and Recreation jobs in May 2021 compared to May 2019. Accommodations and Food Service jobs declined twenty-two percent during the same period. Jobs in Retail are doing better, down just three percent during the two-year period. Overall, there were 63,000 fewer jobs in these sectors May 2021 than in May 2019. (Table 7)

If there are fewer jobs, why are youth reversing longstanding trends to enter the labor force in greater numbers? One reason is the change in schooling. After the Great Recession, the Oregon Employment Department released finding that teens spend more time on academic activities, including during summer months, that they did in the past. Stricter graduation requirements, more competitive college admissions processes, and an increase in the percentage of kids going to college combine to shift youths’ focus from work to education.[3]

During the pandemic, high school and college classes were shifted online. Many students or potential students delayed returning to school. Enrollment at colleges and universities across Oregon decreased in Fall 2020. Community colleges were hardest hit, declining twenty-three percent from fall 2019. Portland Community College enrollment declined 21%. Mt Hood Community College declined 19%. Clackamas Community College decreased 29%. Together, more there were more than 12,000 fewer students enrolled in those Portland Metro Community Colleges in 2020 than in 2019.[4] (Table 8)

Other students took advantage of a more flexible schedule to help parents who were laid off or faced reduced work hours. While youth participation in the labor force is generally positive, educators worry students will be disconnected from school.

Another potential boon to youth employment is the decrease in H2B visas issued in 2021. H2B Visas allow employers to temporarily hire nonimmigrants to work in nonagricultural jobs. Many season employers, including carnivals and amusement parks rely on H2B visa holders. In 2020, more than 2,670 H2B visa holders worked in Oregon. They worked for forty-two employers in industries including forestry, amusements, construction, and food processing. In 2021, the number of H2B visas declined. To date, visas are down about fifty percent from the same time in 2020.[5]

Long Term Impact?

Its unclear whether the current increase in youth employment is the beginning of a new trend. As schools reopen and the economy continues to rebound, its possible youth will drop out of the labor force. Youth who have had the opportunity to earn money might be reluctant to leave the labor force.


[1] Oregon Employment Department

[2] Bureau of Labor Statistics

[4] Oregon Employment Department and Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission

Date posted: 
Wednesday, June 30, 2021