Oregon’s Youth in the Labor Force

by Pat O'Connor

July 2, 2024

Since the spring of 2020, Oregon’s labor force has been on quite a rollercoaster. It is true for the labor force as a whole, but it is particularly true for Oregon’s youth in the labor force. During the pandemic recession, unemployment rates skyrocketed in the spring of 2020 as many service sector businesses temporarily closed to reduce the spread of COVID-19. From March to April, Oregon’s unemployment rate jumped 10 percentage points, reaching 13.7%. A large share of younger workers were employed in leisure and hospitality, which lost the most jobs in spring 2020. Nationally, the unemployment rate for teens (ages 16-19) jumped to an all-time high of nearly 33% in April 2020. The unemployment rate was nearly 26% for ages 20 to 24, also an all-time high.

In past recessions, it took a number of years for high unemployment rates to decline. That has not been the case after the pandemic recession. Oregon’s unemployment rate started declining during the summer and fall of 2020 as businesses reopened and began hiring. By spring 2021, Oregon’s unemployment rate had already dropped below 6%. The unemployment rate continued to decline and by February 2022 it dropped to 3.7%; just slightly higher than the 3.5% unemployment rate in February 2020, prior to the pandemic.

Graph showing Oregon's Youth Face Higher Unemployment Rates

The sharp decline in the unemployment rate occurred for youth in the labor force as well. The national unemployment rate for teens (ages 16-19) declined from 32.8% in April 2020 to 9.7% in May 2021. The last time the unemployment rate for teens in the U.S. was below 10% was 1953. Since May 2021, the unemployment rate for those ages 16 to 19 has edged up between 10% and 13%. In May 2024, the unemployment rate was 12.3%, slightly above its pre-pandemic rate of 11.4% in February 2020. The unemployment rate for Oregon’s teens was 11.7% in 2023, down from 14.9% in 2022.

The national unemployment rate for workers ages 20 to 24 has declined from a high of nearly 26% in April 2020 to 7.9% in May 2024.The unemployment rate was as low as 5.9% in January 2024, but the unemployment rate has ticked up for workers ages 20 to 24 in recent months. Prior to the recession in February 2020, the unemployment rate for this age group was 6.5%. Even though the unemployment rate is now above its pre-recession level, it is doing much better than in past recoveries. During the Great Recession, the national unemployment rate for those ages 20 to 24 remained above 10% for nearly seven years (80 months). The unemployment rate for Oregon’s workers ages 20 to 24 was 8.6% in 2023, down from 9.8% in 2022.

A Tale of Two Recessions

The pandemic recession was a very different recession compared with the Great Recession that began in 2008. The contrast is sharp when looking at labor force statistics of Oregon’s youth. Although both recessions had steep job losses, the speed of the job loss and the recovery have been very different.

The Great Recession was long and drawn out. It took over two years of job loss before employment bottomed out. From that low point, Oregon employment took more than four years to reach its pre-recession level. The deep recession and long, slow recovery adversely impacted youth participating in the labor force. The youth labor force participation rate (LFPR) was already declining prior to the Great Recession, but it reached an all-time low in the wake of the Great Recession.

Prior to the recent pandemic recession, youth labor force participation was trending up in recent years, in particular among Oregon’s teens (ages 16-19), reversing what had been a downward slide for over 15 years. Back in 2000, the LFPR of Oregon’s teens was 57%. Since 2000, teens’ LFPR declined until it reached an all-time low of 34% in 2015 and 2016. Since 2016, a tight labor market has helped participation rates trend upward, which has increased teens’ LFPR to a recent high of 43% in 2020. In 2023, Oregon’s LFPR for teens was 42%. Nationally, the LFPR for teens was 37% in 2023.

Graph showing Oregon's Teen Participation Rate is Increasing

Nationally, the LFPR for teens and young adults has remained fairly steady during and following the pandemic recession. A large number of youth were at least temporarily unemployed, but they did not leave the labor force. We are not witnessing a decline in the participation rate of youth like what occurred during the Great Recession.

As severe as the unprecedented job loss from the pandemic recession was, strong job growth and high demand for workers has occurred much sooner than after other recent recessions. As of January 2023, Oregon regained all of the jobs lost in the spring of 2020, recovering to its pre-pandemic employment level in less than three years. Job vacancies in Oregon have declined in 2023 and 2024 compared with the high level of vacancies in 2021 and 2022. Despite the downturn in the number of job vacancies, employers continue to struggle to fill job openings due to the low number of unemployed Oregonians to fill those vacancies. Oregon’s Office of Economic Analysis is forecasting slow but continuing employment growth in Oregon over the next several years, which will mean continuing strong demand for workers in Oregon.

Opportunities on the Horizon

The strong demand for workers and the current tight labor market isn’t likely to disappear in the near future, similar to the tight labor market last experienced in the 1990s. We will have to see if in the coming years a tight labor market, employers struggling to find workers, and low unemployment rate among teens will keep the teen LFPR trending upwards.

Efforts to provide young workers who lack work experience with job opportunities could have a beneficial impact on labor market outcomes and lifetime earnings. Youth need opportunities to gain initial on-the-job experience and be successful in the workplace so they can illustrate those essential skills to later employers.

With Oregon’s unemployment rate near historic lows and an economy with high demand for workers, that opportunity for young Oregonians would appear to be right now.

Latest Items

Subscription Service

You can sign up to receive email notifications when publications have been updated or new articles are added for any geographic area you are interested in. You can receive new articles on a daily, weekly, or monthly schedule – whichever is most convenient for you.

Visit the subscription order form to sign up. It allows you to choose your preferences, and you can change those preferences – or unsubscribe – at any time.