Vail Daily column: Summer begins, traditional job opportunities end | VailDaily.com

Vail Daily column: Summer begins, traditional job opportunities end

Jordan Bruneau
My View
Jordan Bruneau
Robert Bruderle | Special to the Daily |

Editor’s note: Find a cited version of this column at http://www.vaildaily.com.

Memorial Day marked the unofficial start to summer. But for young jobseekers, there is nothing to celebrate.

American retailers that have traditionally staffed up in summers are closing at an unprecedented rate. More than 3,500 stores have closed already this year, with at least 10 well-known retail chains filing for bankruptcy protection. These include RadioShack, Payless Shoes and Rue21, which plan to close more than 1,000 stores this year. Other mall regulars, such as American Apparel, Abercrombie & Fitch, BCBG and Guess, plan to close hundreds more.

Since August, Macy’s, J.C. Penney and Sears have announced they are closing nearly 400 stores, with the latter admitting it’s on the verge of bankruptcy. Because of these retailers’ outsized importance as mall-anchor tenants, their pain trickles down to other nearby stores. The Bureau of Labor Statistics tracked 26,000 job losses at traditional retail stores in February alone. Once a symbol of youth summer jobs, malls are becoming a memorial to them.

This retail apocalypse is occurring for several reasons, including the fierce competition from online retailers and a slew of state and local minimum wage increases that eliminate scant profit margins. American cities with Amazon warehouses will probably fare all right, but the rest of the country is seeing its retail jobs disappear because of them.

Even traditional summer job opportunities that aren’t in direct competition with Amazon are disappearing. Many movie theaters now use ordering kiosks. Grocery and convenience stores have self-checkout lines. And major restaurant chains such as Chili’s, Applebee’s and Panera use tablet ordering systems. These are automated tasks that were once performed by a mostly young workforce.

The disappearance of these jobs is demonstrated by the data. Less than 1 in 3 young Americans ages 16 to 19 has a job, significantly below the historical norm. Last year, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office issued a report indicating that 1 in 6 young American men ages 18 to 34 was either jobless or incarcerated, up from 1 in 10 in 1980. These negative employment numbers are especially stark given the current strong economy.

These starter jobs provide summer workers with more than a paycheck. A growing research consensus indicates they offer a set of skills that help employees throughout their career. Research by economists at the University of Virginia and Middle Tennessee State University finds that those with early-career work experience earn 20 percent more later in their careers than those without.

At a recent speech in Washington, D.C., Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen stressed the importance that early-career work experience has in protecting workers from economic downturns, as well as integrating them into their communities. A recent study in Science found that summer jobs reduce crime, adding to a body of literature illustrating this association.

The tech and automation trends cannot be stopped. But policymakers can avoid doing more harm by opposing dramatic minimum-wage proposals that would outlaw certain job arrangements and accelerate the automation of jobs.

Given that labor costs are often retailers’ biggest expense, massive starter wage increases in the $12 to $15 range demanded by activists can push struggling retailers on single-digit profit margins into insolvency. Hundreds of businesses have already been forced to cut hours, lay off employees or close altogether in parts of the country experimenting with these wage mandates. (Specific stories can be found on facesof15.com.)

Young jobseekers are facing a perfect storm of employment barriers this summer. Their elected representatives should avoid raising new ones with workplace mandates that weaken the already fragile first rung of the career ladder.

Jordan Bruneau is a senior research analyst at the Employment Policies Institute, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to studying public policy issues surrounding employment growth. The Institute is based in Washington, D.C., and receives support from businesses, foundations and individuals. Learn more at http://www.epionline.org.