In President Obama’s speeches this year, a steady theme has been creating jobs and economic opportunity for Americans. In his State of the Union address in January he said that “what I believe unites the people of this nation . . . is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all—the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead.” And in his weekly address on Saturday, he repeated his strong appeal to young people: “As long as I hold this office, I’ll keep fighting to give more young people the chance to earn their own piece of the American Dream.”
Yet during the more than five years Mr. Obama has been in office, young people have been especially hard-hit by the slow and virtually jobless recovery. Given the destructive effect this has on individual initiative and the prospects of a productive and rewarding working life, the continuing struggle of young Americans to find jobs, start building families and contribute to society is no longer simply a matter of politics or policy. On a deeply human level, it’s profoundly sad.
Consider these grim employment numbers:
- In February the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recorded the lowest percentage of 16- to 19-year-olds working or actively looking for work (32.9%) since the bureau started tracking the data in 1948. The BLS recorded the second-lowest labor-participation rate for this group in April (33.2%) and the third-lowest in January (33.3%). May’s rate was the sixth lowest (33.8%).
- Over the past two years, the BLS has recorded some of the worst labor participation rates for 20- to 24-year-olds since 1973, when the Vietnam War was beginning to wind down. In August 2012, the 69.7% rate was the lowest since ’73. The second-lowest (70%) came in March last year. This year, the third-lowest rate came in April (70.2%). May’s rate was a still-miserable 71%.
- Looking at the seasonally unadjusted data—which is what the BLS makes publicly available—for 25- to 29-year-olds, the April 2014 labor-participation rate was the lowest the BLS has recorded since it started tracking the data in 1982 (79.8%). May’s rate was the second-lowest (79.9%). January, February and March tied with the fourth-lowest (80.3%).
These disturbing numbers raise a simple question: Where are the entry-level jobs?
Five years of 2% average yearly GDP growth simply doesn’t produce enough jobs to absorb the natural increase in the labor force, and over the past eight quarters GDP growth has averaged only 1.7%. Between May 2008 and May 2014, BLS data show that the employable population increased by 14,217,000 while the number of people employed actually decreased by 94,000 and the number of people unemployed increased by 1,404,000. It remains a bad time for young people to be looking for jobs.
Nonetheless, various states and municipalities have increased their minimum wage, thereby increasing the cost of employing inexperienced workers. Minimum-wage jobs have always been a gateway to better opportunities. In making hiring decisions, businesses must weigh the quality and value of work that entry-level employees produce against the cost of employing them. For many businesses in high-minimum-wage states or municipalities—Seattle leads the list, having approved a move to a $15 minimum wage—that trade-off is no longer working.
The bottom line on labor: Make something less expensive and businesses will use more of it. Make something more expensive and businesses will use less of it. The Congressional Budget Office has forecast a loss of 500,000 jobs should the president’s proposal to increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour become law.
The CBO also forecast that this increase would lift a number of people who already have jobs above the poverty threshold. For 500,000 unemployed people, however, that’s 500,000 opportunities American businesses will never create.
ObamaCare is also increasing the cost of hiring inexperienced workers. The health-care law requires that businesses with more than 50 full-time employees offer medical insurance to employees working 30 or more hours a week. The administration knows that the employer mandate will kill jobs and has twice delayed implementing it. With an election on the horizon, American businesses know that these delays were political and that the mandate’s economically damaging impact is in the pipeline, coming their way.
ObamaCare gives businesses an incentive to either eliminate entry-level jobs or keep the workers’ hours to under 30 a week. It also gives businesses a reason to reduce the hours of experienced employees to under 30 a week. These experienced employees are now working second jobs to compensate for their lost hours—resulting in fewer positions for less-experienced workers.
To get on the ladder of opportunity, America’s young people need jobs. Creating disincentives to hire them diminishes the notion that “if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead.” The reality is that you can’t get ahead if you can’t find a job.
I’m not speaking primarily as a business CEO. My company will adjust to new laws. I’m speaking as someone from a working-class family. I started work scooping ice cream for the minimum wage at Baskin-Robbins. To put myself through college and law school while supporting my family, I cut lawns, painted houses and busted concrete with a jackhammer. I know how important these jobs are. For one thing, they taught me—as no lectures from my parents ever could—that I needed a good education so I wouldn’t have to settle for low-paying work the rest of my life. Too many young people today are being deprived of even that basic lesson.
Mr. Puzder is the chief executive officer of CKE Restaurants.