Summer Jobs, Small Business and Community

Small business is, if nothing else, all about community. The community supports it with trade and as a source of employees, its tax revenues go back to the community and its support and sponsorship goes to community organizations and activities. Let’s face it, as small business goes, so goes the community that surrounds it. Knowing this, it seems obvious that for summer employment, small businesses would be a great place for young people to get their start. After all, these are the future employees, customers, suppliers and so on in their communities—as long as the community cares enough to want them to stay.

The Problem of Teen Unemployment
The figures for teen joblessness, especially among inner city teens, are terrible. By May of this year, the overall unemployment rate for teens was 18.7%, which is bad enough; but for black, inner city teens that figure jumps to an astounding 85%! Is it any wonder that places like that are in such bad shape? What makes the matter worse is that summer jobs are often the foundation upon which future careers are built. The fact that you worked summers while in school, learning what it means to work and developing the skills you will need as an employee helps a great deal when you are looking for a job once you have graduated. This puts those who were unable to find summer work as teenagers at a real disadvantage once they are ready to enter the workforce once and for all.

The Causes: Scrambling for the Lowest Rung
It is no surprise to anyone who has lived through the economic rollercoaster ride of the last eight years that employment figures are not really what they seem. The U.S. Department of Labor: Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) comes out with a percentage figure for unemployment. In May, 2008, the figure was 5.5%. But recalling what Mark Twain said about there being “Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics,” we have to ask what does that 5.5% really mean? The calculation is simple enough:

Unemployment Rate = Unemployed Workers/Total Work Force * 100%

The problem comes in when you realize that the unemployment rate only counts those who are not working for pay but are seeking employment for pay. It does not count those who are discouraged and have given up on the job search, the disabled, volunteers and others who don’t meet the rather narrow definition reflected in the official government figure. If you add in all of these, as well as those workers that the government considers “marginally attached” workers, the figure rises to about 9.7%. The BLS defines each of the other categories that go into the 9.7% figure as follows:

  • Marginally attached workers . Persons who currently are neither working nor looking for work but indicate that they want and are available for a job and have looked for work sometime in the recent past.
  • Discouraged workers . A subset of the marginally attached, have given a job-market related reason for not looking currently for a job. 
  • Persons employed part-time for economic reasons . Those who want and are available for full-time work but have had to settle for a part-time schedule.
  • Persons unemployed 15 weeks or longer. An indicator of those who have run out of unemployment insurance compensation.
  • Job losers and persons who completed temporary jobs. Those who have just finished project jobs or whose jobs have been eliminated.

What does all this mean to the teen job market? It means that a lot of adults who have families and themselves to support, are scrambling for jobs that once were only filled by teenagers. During the 2001 recession, I worked in a pet store after my own job in the tech sector was eliminated and I knew PhDs who went from cushy research jobs with some of the giants in the tech sector to competing with 16-year olds for jobs at McDonald’s. What followed that recession? The infamous “jobless recovery,” followed it; and then jobs began to enjoy a little upswing before once more going down. Now, here we are again, the Administration doing everything short of Bush and Condie dancing the Charleston on the back of Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove to not call the current economic mess a recession and once again we find a mad scramble for jobs at the bottom.

I can’t blame employers for choosing grossly over-qualified adults to fill roles barely challenging enough for a high school sophomore. Adults offer a stability that only comes with maturity, responsibility and experience in the job market. They don’t have to receive the same level of training so their productivity increases sooner than is true for a young person. What’s more, they are more reliable. After all, unlike kids with Mom and Dad to support them and school to return to, adult employees actually need the job to support themselves and their families. It’s a pretty straightforward business decision—hire someone with experience in the workforce or hire someone new and terribly green—and for most, the prudent choice is to hire someone with experience. It looks good on a per case basis, but when you start adding all these cases up, when you begin to appreciate the big picture, there is a problem.

Wage Earners in the Community
It is simple: Wage earners contribute to the community, non-wage earners act as a drain on the community. This is not a moral judgment; it is simply the difference between producers and consumers. Wage earners pay taxes, they buy and sell goods and services—all of which pumps life into a community. If you take a drive through an inner city community, with its high unemployment rates, what do you see? Whatever you think it is, it isn’t life. You see rundown neighborhoods, shuttered businesses, filth and crime; a bleak landscape inhabited by the cruel and the defeated, by predator and prey. If they are lucky, they have a near-minimum wage job at a nearby big-box retailer. There are no benefits, of course, but that reliable $7.50/hour puts some food on the table. It’s funny: 38 years ago, the largest employer was General Motors and the average wage they paid was about $18.00/hour. Today it’s Wal-Mart and the average wage they pay is $9.00/hour. That says something about the choices that America has made in the last four decades and it speaks eloquently about why we are in the mess we are in today. When GM was the largest employer, most of our money was spent here at home buying domestically-made products. Today a huge percentage of that money goes overseas. Throw in the money spent on foreign oil and you will have some idea of how little we choose to keep and use here at home.

Yes, it is a choice, one that our so-called leaders have been screwing up for a generation. As long as that is happening, job growth will not be stable and jobs that you can actually raise a family on will continue to dwindle. What is that going to do to your community?

Less money in the community means less business, less tax revenue, fewer jobs and a greater need for and reliance on social services. This is a trend that we have been seeing for some years now and if this is not what you want for America, it has to turn around now.

Communities have to come together to build themselves up and small business has a place in that effort. After all, these are not just customers and vendors, they are neighbors and friends. Politicians who are in bed with big box retailers—which pay little or nothing in taxes, support no local issues and siphon most of the money spent there not only out of the community but out of the country—should be booted out of office. The focus should be on thinking locally, buying locally and spending locally. We have taken care of the rest of the world long enough, now we have to take care of ourselves, and that can begin with something as small as a summer job for a deserving local kid.