Pipelines: Connecting with Millennials
As a parent of two Millennial children, I edited Mike Vogel’s cover story this month with great personal interest.
Several things jumped out at me. One is the wisdom of abandoning stereotypes about Millennials. The image of the slackadaisical, urban hipster Millennial, for example, seems largely to be a creation exported by media in New York, San Francisco and a few other big cities. Mike’s reporting reflects my experience with my own children and their contemporaries: They are complicated, diverse, creative and hardworking.
The most striking aspects of our cover story, I believe, involve Millennials’ economic lives — and what they indicate about the state of our economy.
On one hand, the Millennial generation is, overall, the best-educated in U.S. history. Force-fed a diet of ‘you must go to college’ from the crib on, many Millennials dutifully went to class. Nationally, more than one in five Millennials has a bachelor’s degree or more, compared to about 14% of my generation at a comparable age in 1980.
But the economic return on a lot of those degrees may be questionable. Compared to my generation, Millennials earn less, are more likely to be poor — and many earn their degrees and enter the workforce only after piling up crippling levels of student debt.
Most troubling is the fact that less-educated Millennials — those without bachelor’s degrees — simply aren’t engaging in the workforce at the same levels as previous generations. According to University of Chicago economist Erik Hurst, the employment rate for low-skilled men in their 20s has fallen from 82% in 2000 to only 72% in 2015 — a decline that Hurst calls “staggering.”
In 2015, Hurst says, 22% of lower-skilled men aged 21-30 had not worked at all during the prior 12 months. Compare that to 2000, when just 10% of young, lower-skilled men hadn’t worked in the prior year. “The decline in employment rates for low-skilled men in their 20s was larger than it was for all other sex, age and skill groups during this same time period,” Hurst said in a speech at his university.
The employment decline has barely rebounded since the recession, Hurst says.
Part of this phenomenon, of course, reflects the disappearance of decent-paying manufacturing jobs for lower-skilled workers, thanks to technological advances that make it cheaper to mechanize production than to hire people.
But other factors are at play. In his research, Hurst is exploring how technology — specifically, social media And video games — has affected the way less-educated, 20-something Millennials evaluate the benefits of working vs. the value of their leisure time. He believes that video games and social media have inflated the value of leisure enough that many less-educated Millennials, at least in the short term, would rather live off parents or relatives and play video games than take a low-wage job. Most frightening, Hurst cites surveys showing that despite their higher levels of unemployment and dependence on their parents, the less-educated Millennial men report being happier than their counterparts in 2000.
I think Hurst may be on to something, but I also think that he pays too little attention to what amounts to a big subsidy on leisure — parents’ willingness to feed and house children without insisting that they contribute something toward their own upkeep. Nothing focuses the mind toward gainful activity like hunger and the need for shelter.
I also think the statistics provide yet another indication that we need to recalibrate our obsession with college as the only portal into a decent career. Glaring shortages of skilled workers have developed in many parts of the country as a generation of electricians, carpenters, plumbers, welders and auto and aviation mechanics retires. We’ve been too slow to develop pipelines into those trades. And we’ve been too quick to treat those trades as socially less desirable, regardless how well they pay.
Some Millennials have wised up. See Mike’s story about James Roesner, who abandoned his four-year college degree, got a two-year degree in electrical power technology and now is an FPL foreman who manages the utility’s Volusia County substations. Millennial utility workers are among the best-paid Millennials in Florida, with average annual earnings of nearly $66,000 — more than double the average for Millennial workers.
There are plenty of programs and resources in Florida to connect the new generation with employment, skilled or otherwise — from career academies in local school districts to the statewide CareerSource training and policy organization to community colleges to various local, privately sponsored ad hoc training efforts that have sprung up to address shortages of trade skills.
But focusing those less-educated, stay-at-home Millennials on careers in skilled trades — or just employment in general — will be a tough challenge. In addition to finding ways to connect them with job-training services, the programs would seem to face the even tougher challenge of psychologically reconnecting them with the value of work itself.