Looking for work

Published 11:13 am Saturday, May 1, 2010

Communication. Experience. Reliability. Honesty. Hard work.

These are just a few of the assets many youth in the area and across the state may be missing out on because fewer young people are working. Adults aren’t the only ones affected by the recent economy. People in their teens and early 20s are also having difficulty finding jobs.

“It’s tough right now,” said Amanda Mathews, youth employment director at Workforce Development of Mower County.

In 2009, 107,000 of the 255,000 people between ages 16 and 19 in Minnesota were employed — the fewest in the last decade, acccording to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). According to DEED, the youth unemployment rate spiked to 21.1 percent last year, compared to 9.1 percent in 1999. Youth unemployment refers to all the people who are not working and are available and looking for work. Minnesota’s overall seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 7.4 percent in March.

Many of the jobs youth would typically take are being filled by adults, Mathews said. As some people are unable to find jobs, Mathews said many have decided to go back to school. Others are opting to take summer classes if they can’t find summer employment, she said.

Aside from more competition for jobs, Mathews said there are fewer jobs available. In Mower County, retail is the number one field that employs youth. The second is food services and restaurants. Both of areas have lost jobs, Mathews said.

High school and college students commonly held maintenance and cleanup jobs for the city and county in the summer, but Mathews said those jobs aren’t available because of budget cuts. Mathews said the economy has also affected jobs at places like golf courses and amusement parks.

“They’re kind of getting hit from both ends,” she said.

Not only are more young people unable to find jobs, statistics indicate fewer people are working. In 1999, 68 percent of teens age 16-19 worked, but by 2009 that number dropped to 53.6 percent, according to the Minnesota Department of Economic Development and Employment.

More than a paycheck

Without employment, the young generation is missing out on more than a paycheck. People learn many important things on the job, like interacting with co-workers, punching a time card and even being on time. Without the experience, Mathews said people often times aren’t prepared for a job.

Those who work in their teens can gain that experience without as much pressure. Mathews said part-time teen workers can often make more mistakes than a full-time adult employee. Mathews said it’s also a lot safer to fail at a job in your teens, because employers expect teens on their first job to make mistakes.

Past experience is often a key factor when a company interviews a potential employee. If a 21-year-old turns in an application with little work experience, Mathews said that’s often a red flag for a business.

“Most of the employers we interview say, ‘We can teach them how to do the job, we can’t teach them how to be reliable,'” Mathews said.

Last summer, Workforce Development received funding to put about 67 youth to work through subsidized employment. Workforce Development paid their wages through the funding, but the youth worked for places like the highway department, the Salvation Army or the Mower County Senior Center.

Not only did that give more than 60 people a paycheck each week, it also provided them with experience and skills. Mathews said she is hoping to receive similar funding this year, but it will likely be much less than last year. However, the legislature still hasn’t voted on how much money — if any — such groups will receive.

However, Mathews said that people who typically wouldn’t have trouble finding a job were coming in looking for work last year. She said those people are starting to come back in again.


When Mathews started at Workforce Development in 1999, she said youth would commonly job hop. She said if they didn’t like their hours at one job, they could often switch and find a new job elsewhere with ease.

That is no longer the case.

“It was pretty much their market for a while, and now it’s pretty much the opposite,” she said of employees.

Mathews said employers now have the upper hand in the market. The market used to favor workers, and they could often switch jobs with relative ease. But now, Mathews said employers can be more selective.

“They can definitely pick the cream of the crop,” she said.

Hy-Vee is one example of a business where employees are job hopping less. Manager Todd Hepler said part-time employees are staying an average 3.2 years. He said a lot of that is driven by the youth. In the early 2000s, he said the retention rate likely would have been closer to a year and a half or two years.

“The youth now are not going from one job to the next,” he said. “They’re trying to keep good quality jobs.”

Hepler said more adults have applied for secondary part-time work, and some senior citizens have applied for part-time work. However, Hepler said they’re still hiring a high number of youth workers, and they’re still an important part of the business.

“Our store, without that 16- to 20-year-old age group, wouldn’t survive,” he said. “We definitely need to have them here.”

Hepler said “Help Wanted” signs used to abound the windows of fast food restaurants and grocery stores, but now they’re a rarely seen sight. Now, they’re trying to find quality jobs to work hard at, he said.

Hepler said that’s a change many employers are embracing.

“We don’t want turnover because I think we finally understand the cost of an employee going from one employer to the next,” he said. “We’re doing more investing in our employees.”

Austin’s Hy-Vee now has part-timers board that meets every other week to keep the workers informed and involved. Hy-Vee also gives out a $5 reward called hustle bucks for part-time employees who do extraordinary work, like giving a customer change if they’re short for a purchase.

Hepler said many more businesses are doing such initiatives to take care of part-time employees, especially youth. Such initiatives are based on praise, not the reward.

“I think it’s our responsibility to show this youth how important they are, not just today, but 20 years from now,” he said.

Along with helping young employees learn on the job, Hepler said it’s important to recognize their good work and help them grow. Hy-Vee also does routine performance reviews, and they mail a copy to the youth’s parents.

Hepler said employees often have to learn how to communicate with customers and fellow employees.

“What’s one thing our parents always told us growing up: Don’t talk to strangers,” he said. “They come here, they work for me, and what do I say: Talk to strangers.”


Most of the youth Mathews works with at Workforce Development come from low income families. On top of that, Mathews said many of them have disabilities or a criminal background. Many have dropped out of school, so Mathews helps them attain their GED.

The smallest blemish on a record, like a criminal conviction, can make a big difference when there are many applicants for a job, Mathews said.

Mathews will help youth, often those with a blemished record, find jobs. She’ll also help them fill out a resume and prepare for job interviews. In some cases, Mathews will help people apply for college, as well as financial aid and scholarships. She also said it’s important to help youth find a job that may be the right fit.

One of those people was Jessica Wendroth.

Wendroth, 20, is currently in her second year at Riverland Community College and is hoping to find a job as an administrative assistant, likely in a medical field.

Wendroth quit high school, because she said it wasn’t her thing and was getting into trouble. With her trouble making days behind her, she decided to earn her GED. Wendroth sought help from Mathews, who also introduced her to classes at Workforce Development.

After she finishes school, Wendroth would like to find a job related to being a medical receptionist. She had planned to seek a career in cosmetology, until working last summer at the Mower County Senior Center. She worked with filing and did office work for various programs, an experience that altered her future career plans.

“I learned that there’s a lot more that I can do,” she said. “I’m kind of exploring new things.”

Despite the recent hardships, Mathews said she’s maintaining a positive attitude that the market may pick up.

“I’m hopeful,” Mathews said. “I’m hoping that it’s starting to turn around. I have seen people coming in and starting to get jobs. But I’m still seeing a ton of people coming in looking.”