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Summer employment for teens has fallen to lowest level in decades

Thursday, June 21, 2012

(Photo)
Lifeguard Kelsey Jenkins works with a young swimmer during swim lessons at the YMCA of Southeast Missouri. Lifeguarding is one of the most popular summer jobs for local teens. David Jenkins, Staff
SIKESTON -- Finding a summer job isn't as easy as it used to be for teenagers.

"In the situation now, the economy is not very good, and the teens that normally had the jobs have adults competing against them -- for any kind of job," said Eugene Myracle, functional leader for Missouri Career Center in Sikeston.

Most of the employers who work with the Career Center are looking for full-time or part-time employees year-round -- not just seasonally, Myracle said, adding that trend can make it harder for teens to find summer jobs.

"It's a different ball game now," Myracle said. "There used to be 10 jobs for every employee. You could pick and choose. Now you can't pick and choose; employers can pick and choose."

Fewer than three in 10 American teenagers now hold jobs such as running cash registers, mowing lawns or busing restaurant tables from June to August. The decline has been particularly sharp since 2000, with employment for 16-to-19-year olds falling to the lowest level since World War II.

And teen employment may never return to pre-recession levels, suggests a projection by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The drop in teen employment, steeper than for other age groups, is partly a cultural shift. More youths are spending summer months in school, at music or learning camps or in other activities geared for college. But the decline is especially troubling for teens for whom college may be out of reach, leaving them increasingly idle and with few options to earn wages and job experience.

Overall, more than 44 percent of teens who want summer jobs don't get them or work fewer hours than they prefer. In Missouri, 46 percent of teens are underutilized for the labor force.

"When the employment rate was better, the adults wouldn't think of taking a fast food job for minimum wage. Now, for every job, there are many candidates," Myracle said.

For example, if there's a mature cook who was laid off from a restaurant and applies for a fast food job, the adult will probably will get the job over an inexperienced teen, Myracle said.

About 5.1 million, or just 29.6 percent, of 16- to 19-year-olds were employed last summer., according to an analysis of Census Bureau Current Population Survey data from June to August 2011 by Northeastern's Center for Labor Market Studies. Adjusted for seasonal factors, the rate dips to 25.7 percent. In 1978, the share reached a peak of nearly 60 percent before waves of immigration brought in new low-skill workers. Teen employment remained generally above 50 percent until 2001, dropping sharply to fresh lows after each of the past two recessions.

In Missouri, the teen employment rate is a bit higher than the national rate. About 120,900, or 40 percent, of the state's 16- to 19-year-olds, were employed last summer.

Based on teen employment from January to April this year, also at historic lows, the share of teens working in jobs this summer is expected to show little if any improvement.

According to government projections, the teens entering the U.S. labor force are expected to decline another 8 percentage points by 2020. By that time, young adults ages 16 to 24 will make up 11 percent of the labor force.

Mattie Fowler, a shift manager at Arby's in Sikeston, said the food chain has several teenagers who come in and apply for jobs.

"We do hire teenagers, and honestly we hire just as many minors as anyone else," Fowler said, adding managers don't look at ages when first hiring employees. However, some positions at Arby's do require the employees to be over 18 years old, she said.

Sydney Davied of Sikeston has worked as a lifeguard at the YMCA for four years now.

"I got hired there, and they offered the class for us to become lifeguards and I know when I do go away, you just tell them and he'll put you back on schedule," said Davied, who just finished her freshman year of college.

In addition to working at the YMCA, Davied said many of her teen-aged friends baby-sit to earn money during the summer. Working at restaurants or umpiring local ball games are also popular jobs for her peers, she said.

"It's a perfect storm this year," Myracle noted. "Usually, lawn care is a good job for teens, but we've got a drought. Unless you have a sprinkler system, you don't need to mow each week."

Other places where teen employment is prevalent are fast food chains and state parks, Myracle said.

"If you don't have a job, your job should be finding a job," Myracle said.

Myracle suggested checking newspapers or online sites for job openings.

"The early bird gets the worm," Myracle said. "Get on the employer's website and apply early. In this economy, you can't put in one application and expect to get hired."

Continually check the websites, Myracle said.

"Get everyone you know helping you find a job -- your parents, grandparents, peers. Put something on Facebook. Instead of one person, get 50 looking for a job for you. Use all the sources available for you," Myracle advised.

Be aware of surroundings, Myracle said. Some businesses announce their hiring with signs in their store windows, he said.

"My advice is -- in this economy -- to take any job you can and get that work history built up," Myracle said. "That way employers can see you've been trying and work."

Davied also offered some advice. She said job seekers should make sure they look professional when going for an interview.

How teens communicate is important, too, Davied said.

"You have to talk like you're mature and know how to handle situations that you will have to embrace on the job," Davied said. "If you want a job, you have to go look for one. You can't wait for one to find you because it probably won't."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.