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Jessica Beristianos feels like she won the lottery.

Not the California Lottery; the 21-year-old from Upper Lake doesn't have a check for millions of dollars.

But she has, nonetheless, the ticket to an almost certain job making $35 to $55 an hour, enough to raise a future family while working part-time.

"I'm lucky," she said Friday, wearing a white lab coat over teal scrubs in the Dental Hygiene Clinic at Santa Rosa Junior College. "It's exciting to think of what you can do when you get out."

Beristianos and the other 23 first-year students in SRJC's dental hygiene program are bound for secure employment, something missing for many of their 82 million peers in the age group known as millennials.

They all got in by virtue of an admissions lottery: A random selection of 24 students from a field of 57 qualified applicants.

Unemployment among millennials age 18 to 29 was 11.8 percent in August, more than 60 percent higher than the national jobless rate of 7.3 percent, according to Generation Opportunity, a national youth advocacy organization.

Counting those who are no longer looking for work, the jobless rate for millennials was 16 percent, compared with 13.6 percent nationally.

Sonoma County's overall jobless rate was 7.1 percent in July, compared to a statewide rate of 9.3 percent, with no breakout for millennials nor August rates available.

Millennials, generally born between the early 1980s and mid-1990s, are mired in an economy slowly rebounding from the severe recession of 2008, which erased 8.8 million jobs.

They also are victims of technology, which is eliminating entry-level jobs, and the tendency of baby boomers — their parents — to postpone retirement, said Robert Eyler, a Sonoma State University economist.

For many boomers, the decision to hold onto their jobs stemmed from a dramatic loss of home equity caused by the housing meltdown, he said.

High unemployment among young adults is a global trend, with jobless rates as high as 46 percent in Europe, Eyler said.

An anecdotal observation, not economic theory, suggests that the so-called Arab spring that began in late 2010 was fomented by educated, unemployed youths who turned to protests against authoritarian regimes, Eyler said.

Despite modest U.S. job growth the past two years, there is "probably not a lot of short-term relief in sight" for millennials, he said. Much of the job growth is in service industry jobs, such as barista, tour guide and manicurist, that can't be displaced by technology, Eyler said.

Just 43.6 percent of adults age 18 to 29 held full-time jobs in June, down from 47 percent the previous year, according to a Gallup survey released in July.

In contrast, 61.4 percent of adults age 30 to 49 had full-time jobs, along with 48.2 percent of those age 50 to 64, a group comprised entirely of boomers.

Adriana Foppiano of Napa said the crash of 2008 contributed to her decision to switch from culinary arts training in Napa County to SRJC's dental hygiene program, where she partnered on Friday with Beristianos cleaning the teeth of a plastic and rubber mannequin.

Restaurant jobs involve long hours and low reward versus better pay and greater job security as a hygienist.

"That's what I'm looking for," said Foppiano, 30, at the upper range of the loosely defined millennial group.

The program, which costs about $14,000, is challenging, she said, but the payoff is large. "You can go anywhere; (hygienists) are always in demand and you're helping people."

For a few years after it started in 1999, the SRJC program's graduates were in such demand that local dentists offered signing bonuses.

"I had my pick of the crop (of jobs)," said Wendy Hageman, an SRJC dental hygiene clinical instructor who graduated in 2002.

Now, the local job market for hygienists is fairly tight, but if graduates go to a neighboring county, to San Francisco or out of state, they will find a job, said Carol Hatrick, director of SRJC's dental programs.

Guaranteed? "Absolutely," she said.

The college's other health programs, including nursing and radiologic technology, as well as public safety, are also popular with students, officials said.

"They're definitely seeing education as a path to getting a job," said Heidi Morgan, an SRJC career counselor.

But as digital technology and social media continue their rapid evolution, it's not easy for students — or educators — to match curriculum with jobs, said Jerry Miller, dean of career and technical education.

"It's a rapidly changing employment landscape," he said. "We have to give them the right skill set to get there."

Generation Opportunity has tracked millennial unemployment rates for three years and found them "consistently higher" than the national average, said Corie Whalen, a spokeswoman for the non-partisan organization.

In addition to the sluggish economy and delayed boomer retirements, Whalen said Obamacare is dimming employment prospects for millennials.

The Affordable Care Act's mandate for large employers to provide health insurance will curtail hiring of full-time workers, she said. "It's something businesses are looking at."

Student loan debt exceeding $1 trillion compounds the financial malaise for millennials, Whalen said.

A report in May by The American Prospect, titled "The Millennial Squeeze," said that more than 5.6 million 18- to 34-year-olds want a job and can't find one and 4.7 million more are underemployed or have given up looking for work.

At the current job growth rate, it "will be 2022 before the country recovers to full employment," the report said, and even then workers under 25 "will face unemployment rates double the national average — and flat or declining wages."

(You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.)

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