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In Toughest Job Market Since WWII, An Uphill Climb For Teens And Young Adults

Kyle Stokes
Nigel Wea, 22, speaks with one of the 80 prospective employers at Tuesday's "Jobfest," a job fair in Tacoma for 16 to 24 year olds.

High school junior Marcus Hollman wants a job — "something to get me into the job market," he says. But he keeps running into the same words like a brick wall: "professional experience required."

"There are very few employers ready to accept someone with no previous experience," said Hollman, a student at Harrison Preparatory Academy, after attending a youth-oriented job fair in Tacoma on Tuesday.

Toughest Market For Teens, Young Adults Since WWII

Despite improvements in the overall health of the economy, the Brookings Institution reports the job market Hollman hopes to enter hasn't been this tough for teens and young adults since World War II.

Though Washington state's overall unemployment rate now hovers around 6.3 percent, more than 30 percent of teens in the state's labor force were unemployed last year. The rate for Washington's 20 to 24 year olds was higher than 12 percent.

Nationally, it's been two decades since teens and young adults were unemployed at higher rates.

More Degree Holders In The Workforce

Those who assist unemployed teens say the numbers aren't only due to older, underemployed adults snatching up jobs teens once filled. Brittany Henderson, who works with unemployed teens at the Tacoma-area nonprofit VADIS, says there are simply more people with college experience under their belt.

"There's just more people with degrees in the workforce, so then I think we need to be finding employers who are willing to create job space for people that don't have those degrees yet," Henderson said. "Young adults are typically the people that don't have that degree yet."

Henderson's organization is one of five that partnered to put together Tuesday's job fair at Tacoma's STAR Center. Seasonal employers joined companies such as Home Depot and General Plastics in setting up booths.

Some Hampered By Their Troubled Past

Other young adults must not only overcome a lack of education in finding work; they also have to overcome their troubled pasts.

Nigel Wea, 22, has been looking for steady work ever since graduating high school in 2010. He fell into drugs and stole clothes and food to help finance his habit. 

Long gaps in his employment history and a misdemeanor shoplifting conviction are "big turn-offs" in job interviews, he says, and being upfront about his past with prospective employers hasn't helped. 

"I've had a lot of people say, straight up, 'No,'" Wea said. "And I've had some just tell me to keep trying, to apply."

Wea says he also has documented bipolar disorder, which hurts his chances of getting into the military.

"I've been dealt some cards from birth, and then I've also dug a bigger hole for myself," Wea said. "Now I'm looking at the hole, looking up at the sky, and just knowing that I have to climb. And I'm ready for it." (Here's a short, mobile-friendly flipbook of Wea's story.)

More than 550 youth attended Tuesday's job fair. Organizers say the McDonald's and Wild Waves water park booths both ran out of applications. Several businesses, including Starbucks and O'Reilly Auto Parts, have already committed to next year's youth job fair. 

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.