By Troy Miller, Senior Researcher & Policy Analyst

A report released this week by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce outlines a new reality facing young adults as they approach job and career expectations, making decisions related to postsecondary education and training more meaningful than in previous generations.

Outlining trends that were set in motion decades ago, the study concludes that young workers are today less likely to be employed and finding full-time work more difficult to come by than in the past.  This is especially true for young adults living in Miami-Hialeah, Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater and Orlando, which are among large metropolitan areas with the lowest employment rates for 21- to 30-year olds in the nation.  Nationally, the employment rate for young adults stands at 70%, the lowest level on record since the federal government began collecting data 60 years ago.

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of U.S. Census and American Community Survey Data (IPUMS), 2010

Low employment rates and other changes in the labor market can create a domino effect those approaching adulthood.  Now reaching financial independence later in life, young adults are increasingly delaying marriage, childrearing and household purchases and are more likely to live with their parents, cohabitate with others and move more frequently than in recent years.

While reaching these traditional markers of adulthood may seem inconsequential to some, researchers say there is evidence these trends could carry long lasting negative effects.  For example, those who experience prolonged bouts of unemployment have been known to suffer from physical and mental health issues, and underemployment at the start of one’s work cycle can lead to reduced earnings and job stability 10 to 15 years later.

So why the decline in workforce outcomes for young people?  One explanation is that adults in their 20s are particularly vulnerable when the economy takes a hit.  They have less company-specific human capital, less work experience, less job tenure, weaker job search skills and smaller professional networks.  Without these traits and skills to fall back on, young people suffer disproportionately during recessions.

Another factor that has impacted young adult employment is structural changes to the economy. Since shifting from a goods-based, manufacturing economy in the 1970s to the information-based, services economy of the 21st century, the need for skills and traits associated with postsecondary education and training has increased dramatically in the last 40 years.


From 1973 to 2012, the percentage of job openings requiring at least some postsecondary education or training has more than doubled, increasing from 28% to 59% during that span.  While it is true more young people are attending college, not enough are finishing to keep up with the growing demand for skill.  The problem is not that there won’t be enough job openings over the next 15 years, it’s that our upcoming generations won’t have the necessary skills needed to fill those jobs.

To help improve the workforce outcomes of young adults, the Center on Education and the Workforce report suggests aligning efforts to the occupational reality we now face.  Since many young adults are starting full-time work later in life, the concept of a labor cycle that begins at age 18 and ends at age 65 is antiquated.  Helping young people find opportunities to mix work experience with education at earlier ages is one way to aid them gain access to full-time careers.

Another solution that received considerable attention in the report was improving transparency and alignment between postsecondary education and training programs with labor market outcomes.  Simply put, students and their families are woefully underprepared and uninformed to make decisions regarding the risks and rewards related to choosing particular postsecondary institutions and fields of study.  Thanks to legislation passed in 2012, Floridians will actually start to see more employment data on college graduates later this year.

The report doesn’t mention K-12 education specifically, but it makes a clear case for how important college and career preparation is for students at an early age.  Young people who don’t accumulate the kind of knowledge, education and training necessary to position themselves for work in the 21st century are primed for setbacks that can last years and even decades into adulthood.

Think about your own experiences, or maybe others you know who have recently attempted to transition into adulthood after high school or college.  It can be incredibly overwhelming, even with access to knowledgeable parents, advisors or mentors.  What are some ways you think our state can help young adults thrive at an earlier age, particularly in areas like Tampa, Orlando and Miami?

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