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Idahoans age 20 to 24 — especially men — are struggling to find work

Minh and Tony Le are brothers who took different career paths but landed in the same spot this year — in a growing pool of unemployed young men in Idaho.

A Statesman analysis of federal jobless numbers shows that, while the state’s entire workforce is hurting, young men are getting the worst of it.

Unemployment among Idaho men ages 20 to 24 almost quintupled between 2007 and 2009, going from 4.2 percent to 20.2 percent. In Idaho, a national trend was amplified. The U.S. unemployment average for that group was 9 percent in 2007 and 17 percent in 2009 — starting worse and ending better compared to Idaho.

Last year brought a slight improvement: About 18 percent of Idaho men in their early 20s were out of work. Still, that was twice the state average.

Their stories point to a few reasons for the problem in the Treasure Valley: more-experienced competition, the obstacle of criminal records among some young men, and lack of college degrees.

Men like Minh Le are reluctantly packing up and leaving in search of a better job market elsewhere.

Le, 25, has been hunting for full-time work since 2009. He picked up the pace in May after earning a bachelor’s degree in health information management at Boise State University.

But his full-time search was fruitless, even with a degree in a high-growth area and an internship at a Saint Alphonsus medical office. He spent six months sending applications into the ether, getting no response. He finally gave up on Boise last month.

“I would have preferred to stay there,” he said, from his new home in Cherry Hill, N.J., near Philadelphia. “Boise’s a smaller city. ... There’s a lot of applicants for the same position (and) only a couple local major hospitals.”

His friends back here are doing startups or working outside their chosen fields.

“One is working at FedEx, another is working at a call center,” he said. “It’s like they went to school for nothing.”

Meanwhile, Le spent mid-September juggling two job offers and a second-round interview for his dream job, training hospitals around the country to use new health-care software.

DOES A COLLEGE DEGREE MATTER?

Yes. But it doesn’t immunize new college graduates — who are traditionally in the 20- to 24-year-old age range — from unemployment.

Debbie Kaylor, career services director at Boise State, said college grads have better employment prospects overall. Still, the rate of Boise State graduates with jobs or promotions at graduation has fallen.

Kaylor said 54 percent of the spring 2007 class reported jobs or promotions. In 2008, that fell to 44 percent. It’s been 33 to 34 percent since. About 15 to 20 percent of students aren’t seeking work at graduation, she said.

Alumni have started appearing “a lot more” at Boise State career fairs and coming into the office in the past few years, Kaylor said.

The number of graduates staying in the Treasure Valley has slumped, she said. About 90 percent historically stay in the Valley; it’s been closer to 70 percent lately.

“We instituted a couple new events in direct response to the job market getting difficult,” Kaylor said:

- A one-day job-search boot camp.

- “A lot more networking appointments.”

- A developing partnership with the Idaho Department of Labor and Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce.

“We’re working on really developing a series of networking events to connect our students and alumni with these smaller employers ... that don’t go to career fairs,” Kaylor said. “It’s not like another huge Micron’s just going to move into Boise and bring 5,000 jobs. ... Small businesses are the ones that drive the economy.”

UNEMPLOYMENT CLAIMS

There’s been a drop in the number of Idahoans age 24 and under who are filing unemployment claims. July filings in 2010 were about 1,800, or 9.4 percent of all the claims in the state. This July, there were 1,386 or about 8.4 percent of all claims.

But that might not really be a sign of improvement, warned Bob Fick, spokesman for the state Labor Department. “You can lose people in the statistics for reasons other than (that) they’re employed,” he said.

About 100 people a week are running out of unemployment benefits, he said. So far, about 11,000 people have fallen off the rolls without finding jobs.

WHEN LIFE HANDS YOU UNEMPLOYMENT, MAKE ASIAN BARBECUE

Tony Le, 24, worked in collections at Wells Fargo for three years.

“I was starting to move forward in my career with the company,” he said.

But in September 2010, his team learned that Wells Fargo was shutting down the Boise call center and moving their jobs to one of the Carolinas, he said.

Le got on unemployment. Then his girlfriend, Rachel Evanovich, lost her job at a local Human Bean coffee shop when the owner suddenly shut it down.

Le had been dreaming of opening his own eatery: an Asian barbecue stand. So they hatched a plan.

“We ended up saying, ‘OK, let’s go ahead and start the business,’” Le said. “We went out and bought a trailer for 250 bucks (and) put in about $7,000 on it.” He used cash he had saved.

Le and his girlfriend stopped collecting unemployment as soon as they registered a business name — Asian Boy BBQ — for the truck they’ll park at Maple Grove and Overland.

They also just started classes at College of Western Idaho.

“I’m feeling pretty confident,” he said. “It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Being laid off gave me a chance to get my head into it and start planning things out.”

YOUNG WOMEN

Evanovich isn’t the only 24-year-old to have lost her job.

The jobless rate for women 20 to 24 went up 578 percent between 2007 and 2009, from about 2.3 percent to 15.6 percent, before falling to 11.5 percent in 2010.

Nina Wikum, 24, had been a civilian payroll and accounting worker for the U.S. Air Force in Washington, D.C., and Italy for about six years. She moved home to Idaho this summer after her job in Italy ended.

She applies for three to four jobs a week. She’s methodical, crafting three different resumes for the industries she’s most qualified for and interested in: accounting, payroll and fitness.

But she’s up against people who are older, with more experience, she said.

So far, she landed one interview at a credit union. It helped that she worked for a credit union overseas.

“I just think there’s a lot of competition,” she said. “(Employers) probably have a million resumes coming in. I would hope mine would stick out.”

THE HURDLE OF A CRIMINAL RECORD

The computer terminals and waiting-area seats at the Downtown Boise unemployment office are mostly filled by middle-aged and older workers. A few of them are young men, and all of those interviewed on four mornings last month were either felons or participants in a drug-court program to work off felonies.

They lived in halfway houses or shelters. Most had manual-labor and under-the-table work histories. They know their criminal records — for drugs and other serious crimes — are a barrier to employment, and agreed to discuss their experiences with the Statesman:

- Byron Jones, 21, who grew up in Payette, submits 30 to 60 applications a week and said the results so far are “demoralizing.”

“There’s a guy who made a mistake, and he’s trying to get a job here. ... Give (him) that 30-day probation period,” Jones said.

- Greg Hart, 21, a Boise Army veteran, has gotten some part-time and seasonal retail and sales jobs. Hart isn’t taking unemployment, he said, because “it’s more motivation to find a job.”

“Anything that’s full time has my name on it,” Hart said.

- Eddie Whitten, 23, who grew up in Nampa, worked mostly in construction for eight years. It’s been almost a year since his last job. But he’s taking classes during the day to get his GED.

“I think there’s something out there,” Whitten said.

- Jordan Snowden, 22, who’s originally from New York state, said his last job was in April as a sign-waver for a tax business.

He was waiting to interview for a job “selling ads, classifieds” last month, when he stopped at the unemployment office to fill out more job applications.

What kind of jobs? “Customer service, general labor, fast food. Anything.”

“I donate plasma every now and then,” Snowden said. “My family helps me out a little bit.”

Audrey Dutton: 377-6448

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