Just over half of American youth had jobs this summer, according to new data from the Labor Department, marking a promising improvement over 2011. Among 16- to 24-year-olds, 50.2 percent were employed in July, typically the peak month for youth employment. That's up from a record-low 48.8 percent in 2011.
The improvement is visible in a number of statistics. The July labor force participation rate for these workers—that is, the share either with a job or looking for a job—was 60.5 percent, up from last summer's record-low 59.5 percent. And the summer youth unemployment rate is also on the decline, from 19.1 percent (not seasonally adjusted) in July 2010 to 18.1 percent last year to 17.1 percent this year.
"It's all good news. It's headed in the right direction," says Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Prosperity Institute, a left-leaning think tank based in Washington. However, she adds that figures on labor force participation and employment for young workers "are still really low."
Though the summer employment situation has improved from its post-recession lows, it is still far from recovered. July youth unemployment dipped as low as 9.6 percent in 2000, and until 2008 hung between 10 and 14 percent.
In addition, far fewer of these young workers are looking for summer jobs than was once the case. Just a couple of decades ago, the labor force participation rate was at an all-time high, hitting a peak of 77.5 percent in July 1989—17 points higher than where it is now.
That figure has generally been on the decline since then, but it is not all due to economic woes; in part, young adults have other things to do.
"A lot of it is, school in the summer has increased," says Shierholz.
However, that participation rate fell off sharply after 2008, which likely points to a weak labor market making for a surge in discouraged young workers who have stopped looking for jobs.
For those youngsters who managed to snag jobs this summer, the most popular workplaces were in leisure and hospitality—taking tickets at the amusement park or ushering at a theater, for example—where nearly 5.1 million youths worked in July. Retail followed, with nearly 3.8 million workers.
While it's great that job opportunities are expanding for young people, some worry that it's the wrong type of jobs.
"Really what this is is it's a generational issue," says Paul Conway, president of Generation Opportunity, a right-leaning group that reaches out to young voters. "You really have to step back and ask—are the skills people are gaining in these summer jobs relevant to later hiring? And I think at best it's a very mixed picture."
While he agrees that work experience of any sort is valuable in its own right, he believes that standard summer fare like mowing lawns or waiting tables isn't giving young workers the tools that they will need for jobs in the labor market of the future, like computer skills.
The current job market for young workers may indeed present skill mismatch problems in the future, but at the very least the slowly improving labor market means more people earning and spending money.
"It doesn't matter if they're young people in those jobs or not," says Shierholz. "It's people who are in those jobs getting wages which they will then spend in the economy. That's what will contribute to the recovery."
Danielle Kurtzleben is a business and economics reporter for U.S. News & World Report. Connect with her on Twitter at @titonka or via E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.