Many businesses, from convenience stores to fast-food restaurants, are permanently installing their “Help Wanted” signs. Even this summer, when many high school and college students are not attending school, job vacancies go unfulfilled.

I asked several managers: Why the shortage?

The answers were fairly consistent. Not many young workers are applying. And many that do apply come for the first day of work but never finish the week — sometimes not appearing the second day!

As Woody Allen noted, half of making it through life is showing up. And a portion of our next generation is not showing up.

So what factors are contributing to lower late-teen employment?

While the unemployment rate has dropped below 4 percent, that reflects the number who are actively looking for work. Meanwhile the number of millennials who are still living at home has reached an all time high — exceeding 40 percent — and many of them are simply not in the job market.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 43 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds are working or seeking a job, down from 53 percent in 2006. In 1988, almost 70 percent were working. 

For two decades, schools have hyped that more students need to get college degrees and that there will be little future work available to those with just high school diplomas. Thus, the Lumina Foundation, state boards of education, and many affluent high schools declare that any student who does not go on to college or post-high school training is a failure. But many of the “help wanted” jobs that go begging for workers do not require a college degree or even a high school diploma.

Within this last year, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce reported: “There are currently 30 million good jobs in the U.S. that pay well without a Bachelor’s degree (B.A.). These good jobs have a median salary of $55,000.”

Yet employers are likewise finding shortcomings in many students ability to communicate well with others, to do simple computations without a calculator, to take over a task and carry through to the end, to show some engagement with their work and take pride in doing a good job, and of course, to just show up on time. This may be partly related to the reduction in farm families, resulting in youngsters no longer performing household chores. A child’s practice contributing to their family builds their sense of self worth that continues into the work arena.

Military research has shown that a student who gets a GED by testing does not have the equivalent skills of a student who earned a real high school diploma by attending every day. In other words, high school is just as much about developing work habits — including showing up every day. The introduction of more “anytime-anywhere move-at-your-own-pace digital education” has provided less person-to-person communication, fewer real consequences to student performance, and less practice in meeting deadlines.

There is even evidence that digital technology and social media are eroding the older generation’s work performance. A survey by OfficeTeam found average office employees waste nearly one-fifth of their office day in non-work activity: cell phone for non-business, personal e-mail, social media, sports sites, gaming and shopping online. That is one day a week of lost work production. And younger employees (age 18 to 34) spend nearly 10 hours at work on personal tasks.

The permanent “help wanted” signs we now see around town may have multiple causes, but is heavily due to our digital obsessions at home and in school.


Dr. John Richard Schrock is the editor of the Kansas School Naturalist and former chairman of the Biology Department at Emporia State University.