Nicholas Rastenis has come a long way from waiting tables and clerking at drugstores to keep body and soul together, as he did for years during and after the 2007-09 Great Recession.
The Yale drama school graduate in November finally landed a full-time job in his chosen field, doing marketing and graphics work for a Chicago dance troupe. He has been so busy that he had to turn down an offer he would have jumped at years ago to work on a movie production in Chicago.
"It's a good problem to have," Mr. Rastenis said. And with steady work and income, he's been able to pay off some overdue bills and think for the first time about buying a car and planning marriage and a family with his girlfriend. He even has been able to buy health insurance for the first time since completing graduate school in the depths of the recession in 2008.
"Right now, I'm where I thought I'd be coming out of college," he said. "It's like my life was on hold" for years.
Mr. Rastenis' tribulations and recent good fortunes reflect the changing job conditions for millennials, the generation that arguably was hurt hardest by the deepest and longest recession in modern times.
The unemployment rate soared over 20 percent for 16- to 24-year-olds, encouraging them to stay in school in hopes of improving their employment prospects.
Many chose to live with their parents, take low-paying jobs that didn't use their education, and otherwise postpone life goals. Without steady jobs and income, few felt able to buy cars or homes, or marry and have families.
But the outlook has started to improve noticeably for workers ages 15 to 25. The unemployment rate for that group plunged to 14.2 percent last month, off nearly a third from recession peaks.
Perhaps more important, young people who dropped out of the labor market in discouragement surged back in the past year with the acceleration of job growth and employers' renewed willingness to take on young and inexperienced workers.
With businesses creating over 1 million jobs in the past six months, 1.3 million hopeful workers have returned to the labor force this year. The Labor Department reported that more than a half-million just last month were ages 16 to 24.
Doors open to graduates
Young workers are finding good reason for optimism. A study this month from CareerBuilder and CareerRookie.com found that 57 percent of employers say they plan to hire recent college graduates this year. That is a significant increase from last year, when 53 percent were hiring people out of college, and a dramatic increase from the 44 percent who were hiring young people in the darkest months after the recession in 2010.
A survey of 100 human resources professionals by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago outplacement firm, was even more promising. It found that nearly two-thirds of employers plan to hire recent college graduates this year.
John A. Challenger, the firm's chief executive, said the outlook is good for this year's graduates. He noted that the March unemployment rate for the nation's 16- to 24-year-olds with a bachelor's degree or higher who are not enrolled in school was 6.8 percent, down from double-digit levels during the recession and nearly equal to the 6.7 percent national average for all workers.
He suggested that employers have become more open to hiring young workers as business and sales outlooks improve.
"Employers are still rebuilding their workforces in the wake of the Great Recession. Entry-level workers are an important part of the hiring mix, as they are needed not only to help meet immediate demand, but also to begin the process of shaping the organization's future leadership," Mr. Challenger said.
Even starting salaries for young workers are on the rise — up 1.2 percent from a year ago, he said.
But Mr. Challenger cautioned that finding a job still takes hard work and persistence. Job seekers need to engage in networking and face-to-face meetings, not just mail out resumes, and they may need to get their foot in the door through internships, he said. They also need to show flexibility by taking jobs that are not exactly what they are looking for but could lead to better opportunities.
"The job search will not be easy, by any means," he said. "It is likely that they will be competing for entry-level job opportunities with those who have been in the workforce for one to five years. They may even be competing with older workers," he said.
Mr. Rastenis, who was featured in a 2012 article in The Washington Times when he was unemployed, knows all about persistence and taking jobs outside his field in hopes of doing better down the road. His current job with Giordano Dance Chicago is an entry-level position with few paid benefits, but he says he is happy to have landed the job and hopes to parlay it into work for a major advertising agency or production company someday.
"It gives me experience and helps me pay my bills," he said. A priority is to schedule surgery to correct a problem with his hands, Dupuytren's disease, which he was unable to afford during many years without health insurance.
Being tough and aggressive during those down years paid off in the end for Mr. Rastenis and other young people he knows. "I had to toughen up and utilize my mind the best I could instead of being defeated" by the years of holding down restaurant and retail jobs while trying to glean experience in the arts through freelance gigs, he said.
Mr. Rastenis said many friends and classmates gave up on the job market and went home or returned to school. "A lot of lawyers from very prestigious schools are having just as hard a time finding really good jobs," he said.
Those who showed perseverance and ingenuity are having more success, he said.
A global problem
Political leaders and economists have been particularly concerned about the soaring levels of youth unemployment caused by the recession, a problem that spans the globe and is even worse in Europe and the Middle East.
"The recent recessions in Europe and North America were especially damaging to workers between the ages of 15 and 25" — those emerging from high school, college or graduate school, said James D. Eubanks, a researcher at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis who co-authored a study on the global problem of youth unemployment.
It's encouraging that the unemployment rate for young people has plummeted since the recession, he said, but problems created by the prolonged periods of unemployment will linger.
Millions of millennials out of work contributed to stagnation in the overall economy and created acute problems such as a drought of entry-level buyers in the housing market.
"Bad labor markets have repeatedly been shown to have long-lasting effects on youth in many different countries," including reduced earnings throughout their lifetimes, Mr. Eubanks said. "The postponed plans and stalled careers of millions of young workers are a national concern."
Young workers often are crowded out by a large pool of experienced workers competing for the same jobs. Also, employers are reluctant to hire younger workers, who require on-the-job training, until they feel sure the recovery will last, he said.
Young people in the U.S. are doing much better than their European counterparts, he said. The youth unemployment rate is as high as 56 percent to 60 percent in Greece and Spain, and remains over 20 percent in the European Union.
Mr. Eubanks attributes the better outlook in the U.S. to a labor market with more flexibility to hire and fire, making employers more open to giving opportunities to young people.
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