I recently heard the term “the lost generation” used as a moniker not for disillusioned veterans of the Great War retreating to Paris to write great novels and find their souls, but to disillusioned college-educated veterans of the Great Recession retreating to their parents’ basements to write their resumes hoping to find their first jobs.
Much as we have mourned the fate of the long-term unemployed and regularly extended the duration of unemployment benefits, the truly long-term devastation of the most recent recession is the delayed entry of many young people into the ranks of the employed at all.
Over the five years prior to the recession that began in the last quarter of 2007, the number of new hires made in the Maine economy averaged approximately 90,000 per year — 90,000 chances each year for new entrants into the labor market to find a job. This figure remained a fairly steady 15 percent to 16 percent of the total number of jobs held.
Since 2007, however, the number of new hires in Maine has dropped steadily to 85,000, to 75,000, to 65,000. And these new hires as a percent of total employment have dropped from 15 percent to 14, to 13, to under 12 percent. While the number of new hires increased slightly in 2011, it still remains well below pre-recession levels, both absolutely and as a share of total employment.
The conclusion is obvious — employers weathered the recession by laying off some, sharing work among the select who survived and gradually increasing the hours and responsibilities of those survivors — all while retaining a tight lid on new hires. In 2004, Maine employers as a whole hired 84 new workers for every 100 who quit or were laid off. By 2010, the ratio was only 73 new hires for every 100 separations.
The conclusion for our new “lost generation” is that they need to build income- generating skills and experience in ways other than being hired to do a job. They must, in effect, become entrepreneurs for themselves, seeking internships, volunteer work, collections of part-time jobs, temporary contract work and explorations of their own artistic and creative talents.
At the same time, our educational institutions must turn their attention away from standardized tests whose importance is primarily for securing future institutional funding and whose relevance either to civic or commercial engagement is unproven at best.
What’s wrong with the repeating refrain of superintendents saying test scores are up while employers say they can’t find qualified workers?
If, as the data show, students need to be entrepreneurs driven to create their own careers, then our schools ought to provide them both examples of how to do that and experience in testing those skills while they are still in school, or perhaps when they come back to school as adult re-learners.
The idea of earning the equivalent of topic- and skill-specific “merit badges” as a way of demonstrating not just an academic grade in a subject area, but a documented possession of clearly identified sets of knowledge, experience and skills is increasingly becoming the “test scoring” system in a world of remote, digital learning.
In undertaking these efforts, schools should reach out and engage the “new-hire shy” businesses in their regions to help identify the skills and attitudes they “would” want in good employees.
They should then develop ways to pass those skills and attitudes on to those willing to learn. These are the ways “structural reform” can be put into practice in our educational system.
Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at: