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Five Ways the New Secretary of Labor Can Help Young Workers

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CREDIT: Flickr/ Embajada de Estados Unidos en Bolivia

In the last four years, young workers have endured an historic recession and seen laws upheld that limit their opportunities. Now, with the recently announced departure of Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, we are losing one of the most passionate advocates for ordinary people in the Cabinet.

As President Obama begins his second term and considers a replacement for Solis, Campus Progress turned to D.C.’s leading youth advocacy organizations and asked: How can the president and the new labor secretary help young workers in the next four years? Here are five recommendations from these conversations:

1. Promote Job Growth

The new labor secretary will be faced with a youth unemployment crisis largely unchanged since 2009. Young workers ages 16-24 with a high school diploma saw an unemployment average of 20.5 percent in 2012, up from the 12 percent pre-recession rate. College graduates in the same age group had an unemployment rate of 8 percent, up from 5.5 percent. 

“We have an unemployment crisis that is almost entirely due to a lack of demand in the economy,” Nicholas Finio of the Economic Policy Institute said. “In the current economic environment, the most important thing for job growth is fiscal stimulus, such as fiscal relief to states in budget crisis, infrastructure investment, and direct job-creation programs in areas particularly hard-hit by unemployment. Unfortunately, the labor secretary doesn’t have the ability to create fiscal policy, but the new secretary can be an important voice in pointing out that we still have a terrible unemployment crisis.”

2. Invest in Job Training

Rory O’Sullivan, director of policy for advocacy group Young Invincibles, told Campus Progress that his organization hopes the next Secretary of Labor will make job-training a priority in 2013.

“The Department of Labor oversees many of the employment and training services targeted at young Americans, giving him or her the power to promote innovation and best practices that can get our generation back on track,” O’Sullivan said.

One way to help young workers would be to continue funding existing programs, like the Job Corps, at the levels seen in 2009’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

3. Support Entrepreneurs

Scott Gerber of the Young Entrepreneur Council wrote in TIME Magazine last year that “in a 2011 survey 88 percent of young people said that entrepreneurship education is vitally important, given the new economy—and yet 74 percent of college students had no access to entrepreneurship resources on campus. And when resources were available, most students felt they were woefully inadequate."

The proposed Youth Entrepreneurship Act, developed by Young Invincibles and the Young Entrepreneur Council, might help to solve some of those problems.

4. Aggressively Enforce Labor Laws

The new Secretary of Labor could work to uphold existing laws that protect young workers, specifically.

For example, the Economic Policy Institute has reported extensively on the abuse of unpaid internships by corporations seeking low-cost labor. The law states that for-profit companies must meet every element of a six-part test by the Department of Labor, including that the work performed is not work that would otherwise be performed by an existing employee and that hiring interns is to be understood to be an educational venture. But many interns have found themselves in recent years with companies that skirt the law and provide little educational benefit—for example, look to the 2011 lawsuit against Fox Searchlight.

5. Think Big

The next Secretary of Labor could also push for some of the ideas adopted in Europe: a job guarantee for long-term unemployed youth, or increased apprenticeships like those used in Germany. He or she could steer legislation on flexible working schedules and parental leave or ask Congress to mandate paid sick leave, all of which have significant impacts on many young workers.

Each of these measures could substantially improve the lives of young people for years to come. Do you have other suggestions for the new Secretary of Labor? Let us know at editor@americanprogress.org.

Zach Duffy is a reporter for Campus Progress. Follow him on Twitter @zachduffy.

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