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A new KIDS COUNT report released Monday reveals that only half of U.S. youth ages 16 to 24 held jobs in 2011.

"Youth and Work: Restoring Teen and Young Adult Connections to Opportunity" raises concerns about the profound consequences that youth face when they miss out on the foundation that comes from working part-time starter jobs.

"More and more doors are closing for these young people," the report said. "Entry-level jobs at fast-food restaurants and clothing stores that high school dropouts once could depend on to start their careers now go to older workers with better experience and credentials."

Even some burger-flipping jobs now require a high school diploma or the equivalent, the report published by the charitable Annie E. Casey Foundation said.

Utahns were affected along with the rest of the nation, said Curt Stewart, public information officer for the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

"During this recession, there were so many jobs lost that when jobs opened up — like fast food and part-time jobs normally associated with first and second jobs for youth — they often went to adults," Stewart said.

Utah fared better than some states, according to the report, with 35 percent of teens ages 16 to 19 having jobs in 2011, as did 71 percent of young adults ages 20 to 24.

California teens age 16 to 19 lagged the furthest behind with only 18 percent having jobs. And Mississippi came in last in the 20- to 24-year-old category with only 51 percent employed.

North Dakota ranked the highest in both categories — 46 percent of teens age 16 to 19 had jobs and 75 percent of young adults age 20 to 24 were employed.

The report describes out-of-school and out-of-work youth as "disconnected," an unfortunate circumstance exacerbated by low family incomes.

In households with incomes below $20,000 per year, teens were 2.5 times more likely to be disconnected than youth from households with annual incomes of $100,000 or more. And three times as many young adults in poverty, ages 20 to 24, were jobless and not attending school compared to their wealthy counterparts.

Stan Inman, director of career services at the University of Utah, said that college students generally have better support and more options.

"Most of our students are employed. As high as 70 percent are working while they're going to school," Inman said. "And there are really good opportunities in general for new graduates. They have a unique place in the job market."

Inman emphasized the importance of students taking advantage of job fairs and internships, and then becoming more selective as they approach the end of their course work.

"As they get closer to graduation, they can get a capstone experience that can transition into a job offer," Inman said. "That happens a lot."

However, many low-income and minority youth lack those opportunities and face additional struggles as they approach adulthood. Some fail to finish high school.

Bob Dunn, executive director for Boys and Girls Club of South Valley, witnessed the decline in teen employment opportunities.

"I've been here 34 years. It used to be that kids would be employed and have summer jobs," Dunn said. "We're finding fewer and fewer kids that are actually having jobs, so we've tried to get creative."

Tapping a recent grant from GE Capital, Dunn said his organization set up a self-employment program where teens invest in and operate their own snack shack. "It was tremendously successful," Dunn said.

The snack-shack program is now in its second year and is one of several ways the Boys and Girls Club conveys real-world skills such as financial literacy, accountability and responsibility, Dunn said. The Club's after-school programs serve children ages 5 to 18, with the goal of helping them grow into productive, responsible and caring citizens.

According to the KIDS COUNT report, local and national conversations are taking place to address the youth job crisis that hit Hispanics, blacks, males and low-income youth the hardest.

The report offers several recommendations, such as: 1) establishing a national youth employment strategy that includes financial aid, funding and other accessible and flexible support services; 2) providing incentives for businesses to hire young people; 3) aligning community resources and public and private funders to create collaborative efforts to support youth; 4) exploring new ways to create jobs through social enterprises such as Goodwill and microenterprises; and 5) encouraging employer-sponsored earn-and-learn programs that develop the types of employees they need.

In a recent statement, Patrice Cromwell, economic development director for the Casey Foundation, said that no single sector can solve the problem on its own.

"Businesses, government, philanthropy and communities must work together with young people to help them develop the skills and experience they need to achieve long-term success and financial stability as adults," Cromwell said.

Terry Haven, KIDS COUNT director for the nonprofit Voices for Utah Children, said the report's recommendations are "spot on." The advocacy organization also prescribes a two-generation approach, Haven added, because one fifth of disconnected youth already have at least one child.

Haven expressed optimism that Utah's youth-work dilemma can be overcome.

"With the right political will, the right programs and the right paths to success, we know we can make a difference," she said.

Later this month, Voices for Utah Children will release its 2012 report detailing "The State of Working Utah."

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Diminished opportunities

Nationwide, only half of youth ages 16 to 24 held jobs in 2011.

In Utah, 35 percent of teens ages 16 to 19 were employed in 2011 and 71 percent of young adults ages 20 to 24 held jobs.

Across the country, youth employment hit its lowest level since World War II.

Source: KIDS COUNT Policy Report on Youth and Work

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