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Bleak teen jobs outlook: 25 percent unemployment and stiff competition

Teen jobs are hard to find as they compete with laid-off adults and fewer public-sector jobs. Some cities are raising cash to fund summer jobs.

By Ron Scherer/ Staff writer / June 3, 2011

Avi Salem, 17, stocks shelves at a retail store in Los Gatos, Calif. Avi got help from a nonprofit job-placement service.

Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor

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New York

It's never been easy being a teenager. Now, try being a teenager looking for work.

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Only 1 in 4 teens is working today – the lowest proportion since the end of World War II, according to one researcher. Although some programs are trying to help young Americans get jobs, the unemployment rate for 16-to-19-year-olds who want to work now stands at 24.2 percent, according to the May report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, released Friday. Among African-American teens, the rate is 40.7 percent.

"I am not hesitant about calling it a crisis," says Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group.

It's a crisis with potentially important implications. When teens can't find work, they have time on their hands and can be prone to getting in trouble. One particular problem can be higher incidences of teen pregnancy. Also, in the long run, teens who don't work miss out on developing important skills for later on, such as learning to take orders from supervisors, getting along with co-workers, and coping with criticism.

"The more work experience they have, the higher the wage when they reach ages 20 to 25 years," says Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. "Many employers who are hiring say the kids don't have the 'soft' skills, but the only way to get them is to be in the workforce. So not having a job today affects employability in the future."

The scarcity of jobs for teens comes at a time when many are starting to search for summer jobs. In 2009, as part of the Obama stimulus program, Congress set aside $1.2 billion for youth activities, including summer jobs. But that money is now gone.

As a result, even jobs such as working as a lifeguard are expected to be in shorter supply. For example, New York City will create 23,000 summer jobs, down from 52,000 two years ago.

Many mayors are scrambling to raise money from the private sector to fund summer jobs. In Louisville, Ky., Mayor Greg Fischer has collected $420,000 in pledges – enough money to provide summer jobs for a couple hundred kids, says Michael Gritton, executive director of KentuckianaWorks, a workforce development agency.

Using money from the US Department of Labor (DOL), Louisville also runs a KentuckianaWorks Youth Career Center, which assists teens in finding more-permanent jobs. At the center, counselors help with such skills as building a résumé, setting goals, and performing well in an interview.

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