Opinion

Strong state employment, but warning lights are flashing | Brunell

The good news is Washington is separating itself from the national jobless rate. In July, an average 6.2 percent of Americans were looking for work, while Washington State's unemployment rate dropped to 5.6 percent.

The state added an estimated 7,300 jobs in July, and June's report of 9,100 new jobs was revised upward to 13,600 jobs. The Seattle-Bellevue-Everett area boasts our state's lowest jobless rate at 4.7 percent.

Even so, warning lights are flashing.

Counties in northeast and southwest Washington continue to struggle with unemployment rates as high as 8.5 percent. In fact, one-third of Washington counties posted June unemployment rates above the national average. In Longview, a major industrial center and international port, it is 7.1 percent.

Another troubling factor is that too many young people can't find jobs.

Washington Research Council President Richard Davis found nationally the youth unemployment rate for those aged 16 to 19 years old is about 22 percent. In Washington, that number has approached 30 percent, well above the national average.

High youth joblessness is not unique to America. In June, Pope Francis addressed the issue in a meeting with young people in southeast Italy: "We cannot resign ourselves to losing a whole generation of young people who don't have the strong dignity of work."

Recently, the Italian government reported unemployment in the Molise region, site of the Pope's meeting, was 16.4 percent. But the jobless rate for young people aged 15 to 24 was 50 percent.

Chronic high unemployment leads to civil unrest and rioting. Analysts found the 1972 riots in Liverpool, England were linked to long term unemployment, particularly among young people.

If youth unemployment is a worldwide problem, what's the answer?

First, parents must encourage their children to stay in school and learn the basics: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Then people need to learn a set of skills to become employable.

Since we all learn in different ways, our schools must be more flexible in providing learning opportunities. For example, many students today want non-traditional forms of education, such as online courses and specialized schools like the Aviation High School in South Seattle. These alternatives pique students' interest and give them a reason to attend school.

Second, advanced and continuing education must also offer a variety of options. Not every student is interested in or can afford a degree from a four-year university. Many want a skill from a community college, technical institute or a specialized academy such as Vancouver's Northwest Railroad Institute.

An increasing number of adults would like to earn a college degree, but because they have families and jobs, they can't take a year or two off to go to a traditional college. An alternative for them is affordable, self-paced degree programs such as WGU-Washington offers.

However, a good education is only part of the answer. In the end, we need to create jobs — something which has been lagging significantly since 2008.

For example, energy development holds great potential. In fact the nation's best place to look for work is North Dakota, where Bismarck has the nation's lowest jobless rate at 2.6 percent.

The best opportunity for young people to find their first work is a part-time or seasonal job at a local business. That first job provides the experience they need. There is no substitute for on-the-job training, and there is no more satisfying experience than cashing that first paycheck.

So here is one key recommendation for our elected officials who want to reduce youth unemployment. Remove barriers to employment and reduce costs so employers can offer hire people.

Work provides dignity and hope, a way to lift people out of poverty and despair.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state's oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

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