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High Youth Unemployment Cited as Major U.S. Social Problem

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Washington--Janet L. Norwood, the U.S. commissioner of labor statistics, told a Senate committee last week that unemployment among young people is one of the nation's most serious social problems and one that is worsening for minorities.

In testimony before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Ms. Norwood said that population statistics released this month indicate that nearly half of all black teen-agers in the labor force were unemployed last year.

Jobless Teen-Agers

More than 23 percent of all 16- to 19-year olds in the workforce were jobless last year and 14.9 percent of the 20- to 24-year-olds were out of work, according to the data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The labor commissioner also said that college graduates of the 1970's and early 1980's have found it harder to obtain work than did previous generations of graduates--and that a college education is now less likely to lead to the kinds of professional jobs that traditionally require degrees.

Unemployment lasts four weeks or less for one-third of all teen-agers looking for work, Ms. Norwood said. Such brief periods of unemployment can be attributed to the more transient lives of young people, the commissioner said.

She noted that almost one-half of all unemployed teen-agers were in school.

But, she added, the problem is much more "permanent" for members of minority groups and youths living in metropolitan areas. She noted that teen-agers bear a large part of the responsibility for support in many low-income families.

The employment rates of white teen-agers have risen during periods of economic growth, Ms. Norwood said, but the employment rates of black teen-agers have fallen during those periods. As a consequence, many blacks have stopped trying to enter the workforce, she said.

Last year, only 34 percent of black teen-agers were either working or looking for work, Ms. Norwood said. "[B]lack youth labor-market problems are not limited solely to unemployment but extend to those that have chosen not to enter the labor force at all," she told the committee.

Prior to the middle 1950's, Ms. Norwood said, the employment experience of whites and blacks "was roughly the same." By 1979, 58 percent of white teen-agers were entering the labor force while only 34 percent of blacks sought jobs.

Such low participation in the workforce, Ms. Norwood said, would have later implications.

Deprived of Work Skills

Prolonged unemployment, in addition to its ecomonic deprivations, "can deprive young people of the opportunity to accustom themselves to the world of work or to develop work skills," she said.

"We tend to think of adult workers as mature, experienced, and productive," she said. "But many of these adults have built upon the job experiences of their youth. Young people who have not had any success in the job market may [later] encounter more difficulty."

The Senate panel is studying long-term unemployment and the deterioriation of the public "infrastructure," which includes roads, bridges, and buildings.

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