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Cultural, practical experience contribute to youth unemployment below 8 percent

EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn. -- Alex Barta, 18, described himself as a "jack of all trades" as he manned the concessions and ticket counter Monday afternoon at River Cinema 15 in East Grand Forks.

Alex Barta, working with Corrine Dahlquist, at River Cinema in East Grand Forks, Minn., is looking forward to earning some money over the holidays during break from college at NDSU. Photo by Eric Hylden/Forum News Service
Alex Barta, working with Corrine Dahlquist, at River Cinema in East Grand Forks, Minn., is looking forward to earning some money over the holidays during break from college at NDSU. Photo by Eric Hylden/Forum News Service

EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn. - Alex Barta, 18, described himself as a “jack of all trades” as he manned the concessions and ticket counter Monday afternoon at River Cinema 15 in East Grand Forks.

“You work the cash register, sell popcorn, sell tickets,” Barta said, ticking through the duties of the job. “You clean theaters, so that’s walking around and sweeping back there, you clean and mop everything over here and you switch things out when there’s not a lot left.”

Barta, a freshman at North Dakota State University, is back in town for winter break. That means he’s back to earning some extra cash at his old movie theater gig he picked up last November when he was 17 and still in high school.

At that point, he said everyone he knew at school had a job of some kind. According to data compiled for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Barta and his peers weren’t alone.

Population surveys suggest North Dakota saw the lowest youth unemployment rate this year in the U.S. So far in 2016, the unemployment rate for state residents ages 16-19 is about 5.7 percent. Across the Red River, Minnesota has a rate of about 7.6 percent. Nationwide, that rate is about 15.2 percent.

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As with the unemployment rate for the general population, the youth statistic points to the number of individuals actively looking for work, as opposed to those who voluntarily opt out of the labor pool.

Keith Reitmeier is the customer service area manager for the Grand Forks office of Job Service North Dakota. When discussing the low rate of youth unemployment, he points to historically high rates of labor involvement among the young people of the state.

Reitmeier attributes the current situation in part to a cultural appreciation of getting the job done.

“A lot of these kids come from families that believe in work ethic and think it’s a good experience for them to get a job,” he said. “Besides, these young people are smart - they know it costs money to go beyond high school and get education and training, and it’s always good to enter the workforce to see what it’s like.”

Career stepping stone For some workers, an early dip in the labor pool can build into a career.

Jeff Westrem, human resource director for the regional Hugo’s chain of grocery stores, got his start in the business by bagging groceries as a high schooler back in 1976. He bags fewer groceries these days, but is still doing his part at Hugo’s about 40 years later.

“We’ve hired a lot of college and high school students over the years,” Westrem said. He estimated the combined force of the students makes up roughly 20 percent of Hugo’s staff and said flexibility in work scheduling helped make the business attractive to student workers.”

That flexibility plays across industries. In the retail world, Julie Gilbraith, executive team leader for human resources at Target in Grand Forks, said the ability to adapt is shared between the business and its younger employees.

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Gilbraith is another worker who stayed working for the company where she started - though she’s been at different locations, she began working for Target about 33 years ago while studying at University of North Dakota.

For student workers, Gilbraith said the business offers the opportunity for a mutually beneficial deal when it comes to scheduling.

“We run all kinds of different shifts, so the flexibility works great,” she said. “We’re as flexible with them as they are with us.”

The rise of extracurricular activities has increasingly eaten into the time many students of the past may have used for working. When Barta was in high school, he said he worked at the movie theater mainly on the weekends.

“When I was in school, I was in an extracurricular every single part of the year,” he said. “During summer it was whatever, but during the year you had to balance.”

Part of the draw to working at the theater was the element of flexibility, Barta said. His other motivations for working fell into categories ranging from earning money to social atmosphere to personal enrichment. Overall, he cites his early work experience as a solid primer for the future.

“It’s been good to know I can handle having work, but also school and other things going on at the same time,” Barta said. “It comes down to knowing when I have work, coming in on time and being productive while I’m here. It’s been a good year of working to prepare myself for what’s going to happen later in life.”


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Alex Barta is able to work some hours at River Cinema in East Grand Forks, Minn., over the holiday break. Photo by Eric Hylden/Forum News Service
Alex Barta is able to work some hours at River Cinema in East Grand Forks, Minn., over the holiday break. Photo by Eric Hylden/Forum News Service

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