Summer jobs for teens take a 'retro' turn, with a few twists

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With school letting out for summer, Elvin Santiago is not looking for a high-powered gig in the big city. This year, the 16-year-old from Plainfield, Conn., is content to be rolling dough and washing dishes at the local pizza place.

"This satisfies me," says Elvin, a junior at Plainfield High School. "I feel comfortable here. It's a family business, and you're always on your feet."

Like millions of teenagers nationwide, Elvin didn't look much further than one town over for work this year, and was happy to land a traditional summer job.

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It's a countertrend from the tail end of the 1990s, which saw teenagers armed with tech skills and corporate ambitions pursue high-paying work, often in a different state. Last year alone, 120,000 teens held computer-related jobs, up from 58,000 in 1996.

But companies across the country are beginning to trim internships and special programs, experts say.

"There were companies hiring teenagers left and right last year that won't hire as many summer workers this year," says John Challenger, president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago outplacement firm.

Tatiana Xenelis says the shift is measurable. A coordinator for Youth Tech Entrepreneurs, a Boston-based program that helps teenagers find summer technology jobs, Ms. Xenelis cites a stream of participating companies refusing students this year.

"Tech companies are saying 'we're really hurting right now because of the economic slowdown,' " says Xenelis. She says firms have cut tasks once reserved for interns, such as website enhancement. And 15 of 44 participating firms that hired interns last year have left the program.

The strategy for many teens now is a return to the hot-dog stand. Summer employment stalwarts like amusement parks, movie theaters, and restaurants aren't expected to shrink their workforce this year, economists say.

Carmike Theaters in North Little Rock, Ark., for example, plans to hire an additional 100 workers this summer to man 11 theaters across the state. And in Des Moines, Iowa, 600 teenagers alone are expected to join the staff of Adventureland Park through September.

Teenagers' summer jobs are more secure these days, experts say, because many work year round rather than just during school breaks.

While the labor force of 16- to 19-year-olds has remained relatively steady over 10 years, the number of teens working in July compared to April rose only 24 percent last year, compared with 30 percent in 1999 and 41 percent in 1992.

Also, the industries that commonly hire teenage summer workers have not been strongly affected by the downturn.

"Changes in the labor market have affected industries that do not directly impact job opportunities for teenagers," says Ronald Bird, chief economist at the Employment Policy Foundation in Washington. But Mr. Bird says the job market could tighten. "Since a lot of the summer work for teenagers depends on recreation and amusement ..., high gasoline prices could have an impact," he says.

The federal government, according to Mr. Challenger, could be one alternative. It might hire as many as 193,000 seasonal workers, he says. And the work goes well beyond data entry.

The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in Eastern Oregon, for example, hires as many as 500 summer workers, mostly teenagers, to serve as forestry aides. Tasks include fighting fires (you need to be at least 18), building trails, and assisting tourists and hikers.

According to Challenger, park ranger jobs pay as much as $14 an hour and NASA pays $8 an hour for research help.

Whatever the work, human-resource specialists advise teenagers not to skip over the details before taking a job.

James Medlock, director of education and training at the American Payroll Association in San Antonio, Texas, says a few little-known salary regulations could catch teens by surprise. Mr. Medlock cites the opportunity wage, which allows employers to pay anyone under 20 $4.25 an hour for the first three months of work - about 90 cents below the federal minimum wage.

"If I were a teenager and was told I'd be paid minimum wage, I'd want to know if it were the opportunity wage, the federal minimum wage, or a higher or lower state wage," says Medlock.

He also discourages teenagers from receiving pay under the table in order to avoid taxes. Medlock points out that those workers will delay their qualification for Social Security and lose out on unemployment insurance.

"Most [teenagers] are probably not thinking of those, because they seem like they're way out in the future," he says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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