Oregon's 11 percent overall unemployment rate is well above the national average, but when the numbers for teen workers are examined, the landscape is even gloomier.

Oregon's 11 percent overall unemployment rate is well above the national average, but when the numbers for teen workers are examined, the landscape is even gloomier.

The teen unemployment rate in Oregon has averaged just more than 31 percent over the past year, according to an analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics prepared by the Employment Policies Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank. Teen unemployment in Oregon is nearly 28 percent higher than the national average, and Oregon has the third highest average teen unemployment rate in the nation.

Those figures come as no surprise to Dennis Alexander of the Job Council in Medford. To boost teen employment locally, the Job Council used a million dollars in federal stimulus funds to put 303 Jackson County young people to work.

He said the youths worked an estimated 28 to 30 hours per week through the summer. "It's the first time in five years we had work experience program like that," Alexander said. He noted that some 200 additional youngsters went through an introductory class prior to entering the program.

The program serves 14-through-24-year-olds. "We don't look at 14- and-15-year-olds as much now because the federal government makes it harder to serve that population," Alexander said. "It's more in the 16-to-19 age group, and more often than not the 18- and 19-year-olds who didn't complete high school."

According to the Employment Policies Institute, young Oregonians seeking jobs continue to struggle to find entry-level positions. That's due in part Oregon's minimum wage — at $8.40 per hour among the highest in the country — and potential future raises related to inflation-indexing.

"Oregon's high minimum wage has made it more difficult for employers to hire and train low-skilled workers who rely on entry-level jobs to get started in the work force," said Kristen Eastlick, an economic analyst at the institute.

Studies from economists at Cornell University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of California at Irvine, have shown that vulnerable young adults suffer significantly more employment loss as a result of a minimum wage increase.

The lack of opportunity will eventually hit home with far greater consequences, Alexander said.

"Youth participation in the labor force is at its lowest point since records have been kept," he said.

He said there are certain sectors, including fast-food work, that teens tend to avoid. "There is a certain stereotype for some segments of the population that (fast food) would be a last alternative and they're going to look for something else," Alexander said, "but as an older person, I can tell people that to spend time in a structured environment provides good training, and they become qualified for other things."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail business@mailtribune.com.