Playing Video Games No Substitute For Teen Jobs

  • Author: Michael Saltsman

  • Publication Date: May 2010

  • Newspaper: Detroit News

  • Topics: Minimum Wage, Teen Unemployment

Good news: your teens will have plenty of time to learn about Roman mythology this summer.

The bad news is that they’ll do so by playing the ultraviolent videogame “God of War III.” They’ll need something to occupy their long, hot summer days, as getting a job is unlikely at best.

A new report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that the unemployment rate for high school graduates in the class of 2009 was 28.4 percent. That is almost double the unemployment rate in 2007, when 14.7 percent of graduates couldn’t find a job.

A deeper look at the numbers suggests things are even worse. An Employment Policies Institute analysis of BLS data found that it’s taking these unemployed teens far longer to land a job; over the last three years, there’s been a 174 percent increase in the percentage of teens looking for a job for six months or more. As of March 2010, almost one-in-three unemployed teens had spent this long looking for work; three years ago, that number was only one-in-nine.

What’s happened in the intervening three years? A historic recession and a massive, 40 percent increase in the federal minimum wage between July 2007 and July 2009.

According to a 2007 survey from the University of New Hampshire, three out of four economists agree that minimum wage hikes kill jobs. The latest wage increase was no exception; research from Ball State University estimates that it is responsible for the elimination of more than 300,000 teenage job opportunities.

It’s not hard to understand why these jobs disappeared: As labor costs go up, employers are forced to schedule unskilled employees for fewer hours, or eliminate their positions altogether.
As labor costs increase, it becomes more likely that employers will automate the jobs entry-level employees perform. McDonald’s taught America how to clean its own tables. Exxon taught us to pump our own gas. Safeway is teaching us to check out and bag our own groceries. The decades-long trend is clear: Self service is becoming the default option for avoiding labor costs that can’t be offset with price hikes.

As a result, teenagers lose out on all-important lessons gained in those early jobs like working with others, reporting to a supervisor, and coming in to work on time. This “invisible curriculum” isn’t taught in high school, but is just as important to future career success as what teens are learning in Geometry class.

But thanks to massive increases in the minimum wage and the continuing effect of the financial crisis and ensuing recession, more teenagers than ever before will miss out on these formative experiences.
What can be done?

Instead of government programs pumping money into creating busy work for teens, we can try something radically simpler: Let’s lower the minimum wage for teenagers. Instead of forcing employers to pay an untrained, untested employee an inflated wage, give employers more freedom to evaluate how much someone with less experience and fewer work skills is worth.
Video game companies will probably oppose the move, but the rest of us should support any policy that means more teens in jobs, and fewer teens in front of PlayStations.

Michael Saltsman is the research fellow at the Employment Policies Institute, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to studying public policy issues surrounding entry-level employment.