Getting jobbed: Minimum wage hikes and teen unemployment

Summer jobs for teenagers are disappearing.

The Associated Press reports that fewer than three in 10 American teenagers will hold jobs such as running cash registers, mowing lawns or busing restaurant tables from June to August, this year. The decline has been particularly sharp since 2000, with employment for 16- to 19-year-olds falling to the lowest level since World War II.

Overall, more than 44 percent of teens who want summer jobs won't get them, or will work fewer hours than they'd like. "It's really frustrating," Colleen Knaggs told The AP, describing her fruitless efforts to find work for the past two years. The 18-year-old graduated from high school recently in Arizona.

Teen unemployment is expected to run 35.7 percent in Nevada this summer, trailing only South Carolina at 36.1 percent and the District of Columbia at 45.3 percent, based on an analysis of Census Bureau Current Population Survey data from June to August 2011. The national teen unemployment rate is expected to run 25.2 percent.

"I have big concerns about this generation of young people," says Harry Holzer, labor economist and professor at Georgetown University. Mr. Holzer tells The AP the income gap between rich and poor gets worse when lower-income youths who are less likely to enroll in college are unable to get job skills and training.

Indeed, the main point of a first job isn't the take-home pay - it's building up a work history. This makes the decline especially troubling for teens who aren't going on to college. If they can't mount the first rung on the employment ladder - a trainee's job for low wages - where will they start?

And that, in turn, makes it doubly puzzling that so few who bemoan these job losses point out the most obvious cause: hikes in the minimum wage.

The federal minimum wage is now $7.25 an hour. Many states, including Nevada - $8.25, with some exceptions - set higher wages. Jobs paying less are outlawed.

When the federal minimum wage was last hiked - from $6.55, in 2008 - did every kid then earning $6.55 get a 70-cent raise? No. Some were let go. Some who might have been subsequently hired were never hired.

There are very real consequences to an ever-rising minimum wage, not the least of which is that many entry-level workers - particularly in minority or low-income communities - are priced out of the job market or face more competition from those who previously wouldn't have been interested. Indeed, "Older workers, immigrants and debt-laden college graduates are taking away lower-skill work as they struggle to find their own jobs in the weak economy," reports The AP. In addition, businesses adjust by adopting new technologies that help them become more efficient with fewer workers.

Nor is a higher minimum wage a recipe for eradicating poverty. American households in which a minumum wage earner is the sole breadwinner are virtually nonexistent.

If we want to give teenagers - especially minority and low-income teenagers - the benefits of entry-level summer jobs, the first step is obvious: Let employers hire them for what their skills are worth.