April 12, 2006
The Missing Mexican LinkBy Noel Sheppard
In the past couple of weeks as illegal immigration has dominated the front pages and the lead stories of virtually every network's evening news program, you haven't been able to swing a gato muerto without hitting some pundit or broadcaster discussing the 'unwanted jobs' being taken by undocumented workers. In fact, according to LexisNexis, there have been over two hundred news reports since this brouhaha began containing the phrase 'jobs Americans won't do.'
Jobs Americans won't do? Excuse me?
I don't know about you, but I find this concept almost as offensive as racial epithets directed at illegal immigrants. After all, is there really a job that Americans won't do, and, if so, why?
On the other hand, if this is indeed not the case, but rather a convenient media affectation to simplify a complex problem for those with lukewarm intelligence quotients, what is the truth that is clearly eluding the talking headless?
To answer this question, I delved into the hallowed halls of employment data buried deep in the recesses of the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics...God bless me. There, I found answers that some might find rather shocking.
In particular, American teenagers aren't working anymore.
That's right. In the last several decades, there has been a pronounced decline in the participation rate of folks between the ages of sixteen and nineteen in the labor force. To put this into English for those that are not economically lingual, this means that America's teens are either not employed, or not looking to be employed.
What are the numbers? Well, in February of this year, only 34.5 percent of people aged sixteen through nineteen were employed. Now, this doesn't mean the unemployment rate in this demographic was 65.5 percent. Instead, the problem is that only 41 percent of folks this age were considered part of the workforce.
Ergo, 59 percent weren't.
From a historical perspective, this percentage of teenagers out of the workforce is close to the highest rate since the Labor Department started keeping such statistics in 1948. By contrast, in February 1979, only 47 percent of teenagers were out of the workforce. And, at that time, 44 percent of the teenaged population over the age of fifteen had jobs.
Now, you might be thinking that February is in the middle of the school year, and, as a result, one should expect low worker participation rates at this time. This would certainly be an astute observation on your part. Congratulations.
Unfortunately, though the numbers were certainly better last summer, they did not approach those of similar periods in prior generations. For instance, in July 2005, roughly 44 percent of teenagers of working age had jobs. This compared quite unfavorably to July 1979 when almost 60 percent were employed.
Beyond this, only 53 percent of this demographic were either employed or looking for work last July. By contrast, this number was almost 71 percent in July 1979.
Add it all up, and America's teenagers are not only not working during the school year, they're also not looking for work over the summer either.
How might this be impacting the illegal immigration issue? Well, the conventional wisdom is that many of the undocumented workers currently in our nation are either working in the hospitality industry — restaurants, bars, hotels, motels, etc. — or are in landscaping or similar services.
Aren't these the types of jobs that teenagers would normally be doing? I don't know about you, but I washed dishes while I was in college. Isn't dishwashing the kind of job 'nobody' in America wants today?
As such, is it conceivable that this issue is less a function of what Americans are willing to do for money, and more related to a growing laziness on the part of America's youth? If this is the case, what might this portend for the future of America's workforce as these youth mature?
If you speak to any small business owner in America today, you will certainly get a different rationale for hiring Mexicans than the cheap wage benefit being ascribed by the so—called experts on the subject. Quite the contrary, all of the restaurant owners in my town say they hire Mexicans because they are hard—working, devoted, and dependable.
By contrast, these same business owners complain about teenagers and younger employees that won't work eight hour days or 40 hours a week, are regularly late, miss a lot of days due to supposed illness, and seem to always be on a break.
Should we begrudge employers that want to hire people who actually want to work? And, maybe more important, do we really want to consider penalizing small business owners for hiring such folks by fining them if they do?
Something to consider before you quickly answer this question is that increasing numbers of young adults are moving back home to live with their parents for a variety of reasons. Is this poor work ethic developed in the late teens the cause of the problem? Are we as a nation doing a lousy job making young adults responsible employees capable of providing for themselves?
And, as it relates to the illegal immigration issue, is the poor job that parents are doing of weaning their children reducing the available workforce of waiters, busboys, cooks, maids, and landscapers thereby opening the door for such positions to undocumented workers?
Unfortunately, we might never know the answer to these questions, for like most important issues facing our nation today, politics are getting in the way of any honest debate on the subject. However, the next time you leave your favorite restaurant — having been served by a Mexican, dined on food cooked by a Mexican, with your table cleared by a Mexican — only to find upon your departure a group of high school students loitering on the adjacent street corner, ask yourself what's wrong with this picture?
Noel Sheppard is an economist, business owner, and contributing writer to the Free Market Project. He is also contributing editor for the Media Research Center's NewsBusters.org. Noel welcomes feedback.