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Summit highlights youth employment issues

August 8, 2013 in The Watauga Democrat

By Anna Oakes

Statistics indicate that young adults do not find gainful employment as successfully as older adults, and local leaders hope to find ways to keep young people from having to leave the High Country to find work.

Organized by the High Country Workforce Development Board, the inaugural High Country Youth Summit — held Thursday at the Blowing Rock Art & History Museum — brought 70 education, workforce and youth professionals together to discuss strategies to combat high unemployment and under-employment rates among young adults.

“We know that a lot of our youth leave the area to seek employment elsewhere,” said Sallie Woodring, chairwoman of the High Country Workforce Development Board’s Youth Council. “We have to come together as a community if we’ll ever resolve this issue.”

The summit was facilitated with help from consultant Leading the Change and featured speakers from the region, state and national organizations, including Young Invincibles, a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to voicing the interests of 18- to 34-year-olds. The organization is in the midst of a national “Get the Facts About Youth Jobs” campaign, which aims to engage stakeholders in discussing solutions to training young adults for careers.

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that young adults in North Carolina were unemployed at twice the overall jobless rate in 2012 — while the jobless rate averaged 9.2 percent in the state in 2012, the rate was 18.8 percent for workers ages 16 to 24. In addition, full-time employment has decreased while part-time employment has increased among workers ages 18 to 24 since 2005, according to Young Invincibles.

While young people have historically been unemployed at a higher rate than other adults, today there are additional issues compounding the problem for youth, including high amounts of student loan debt, said Dustin Summers of Young Invincibles, a featured speaker at the summit.

“As an organization, we knew we wanted to respond to this continuing trend,” he said.

Woodring said summit attendees identified a number of challenges and strategies for providing greater economic opportunities for young adults.

“There needs to be more focus on career development starting in grade school, not just high school or college,” she said. “I think it should start even younger than the eighth grade.”

Mentorships from business leaders and youth who have succeeded are needed, she said.

In an age of emails and text messages, summit attendees worried that young people lack the in-person communication skills needed to thrive in work environments.

“They don’t have the social skills they need to attain a job and then keep that job,” said Woodring.

And, she added, community colleges and educators must do a better job of recognizing local job needs and training students for those needs. One example, she noted, is the need for dentists in the region and the lack of programs aimed at training dentists.

“Educators are not necessarily staying current with what the true needs are,” she said.

With the loss of many industries and the dearth of new industries coming to the High Country, local educators must work to instill a sense of entrepreneurialism in youth, she said.

Adrian Tait, director of the High Country Workforce Development Board, pledged to continue the momentum from the summit as part of an ongoing initiative. Attendees emphasized the need to bring young people to the table at a future meeting.

“So often we talk over the youth,” said David Burleson, superintendent of Avery County Schools. “We kind of forget they’re there. We don’t understand how important their input is.