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Why teens have a tough time finding summer work

Many are enrolling in summer classes or doing community service while others are squeezed out by adults competing for the same entry-level jobs.

By Staff writer / June 12, 2007


This summer is shaping up as a tough one for many of America's youngest job seekers.

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Camps still need counselors. Ice cream shops still need young arms with a knack for alternating between a scoop and a cash register. And the nation's job market is strong.

Yet teen employment rates haven't rebounded from the recession of 2001. Instead, these numbers are at historic lows.

The reasons include positive forces, such as the rise of new opportunities for summer education and community service. But the trend also reflects more competition from older workers for a shrinking pool of entry-level jobs.

In Boston, 17-year-old Dedric Due says he's scanning the newspaper ads for a job, and so far hasn't found one. With a self-confident bearing, he says he'd like to be an assistant music teacher. But just about anything, from construction to retail, would do. "I'd do whatever job would make me money," he says.

The cooler job market for teens is a challenge not just for them, but perhaps for the whole economy. That's because the young generation is the future workforce.

"How do you learn [to work]? You spend time in the workplace," says Andrew Sum, an economist at Northeastern University in Boston. "Fewer kids are getting serious work experience during their high school years."

It's a year-round challenge, but especially important during the summer, when school is out and more young people seek work.

Consider one measure of the youth labor market, the share of 16- to 19-year-olds who are employed each July. Typically this number, as tracked by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics since 1948, has reached above 50 percent. But the ratio began falling in 1998, dipped below 50 percent in 2002, and has spent the past four summers below 45 percent.

The pattern in summer is echoed year round. As of May, for example, the same ratio of employment to population stood at a six-decade low of 34.6 percent, after an adjustment for seasonal fluctuations.

Why is this happening?

The trend is partly a story of changing choices by teens and their parents. Many, especially in upper- or middle-class neighborhoods, have decided that academic or volunteer activities may look better on college applications.

But some economists who study the teen labor market say jobs are also scarcer than in past years, affecting young people of all backgrounds. Finding work remains much harder for young black, Latino, and Asian-Americans than for their white peers.

On Washington Street here, Dedric isn't the only young African-American hoping for a job. Just down the block, Gerald Richardson, 13, has been volunteering after school, mentoring other kids at the Salvation Army. He says he wants to do more of that, for pay, during the summer.

He has a good shot at getting his wish, since city funding will help create 40 jobs here. But last year, this same community center was able to hire 48 young people like Gerald.

"Funding is tough," says Matt Parker, who will be doing the hiring. He says job opportunities are slimmer now than when he was Gerald's age in the mid-1990s.

"Kids are competing for a lot of jobs with adults now," Mr. Parker says, whether it's bagging groceries or doing a financial internship, as he did one summer.

The challenges faced by young Boston residents are mirrored, to varying degrees, in communities nationwide.