Summer Job Hunt Begins in Earnest

From Maine to Alaska, 23.7 million youths are expected to work at resorts, diners, and parks

This weekend, Americans fired up their grills, cranked their lawn mowers, and unearthed bottles of mosquito repellent in a nationwide celebration of the unofficial start of summer.

Each year, the Memorial Day weekend also signals the start to one of the most significant labor-market shifts of the year: the migration of teens and college-goers from classrooms to sales counters, resort towns, and suburban yards.

Despite cuts in federal job programs and less-than robust US Labor Department estimates, economists and tourism industry experts say the overall outlook for teen employment is strong this summer. From Kennebunkport, Maine, to Mt. McKinley, Alaska, unemployment rates are the lowest they've been this decade, national economic indicators are up, and predictions for the season's tourism are encouraging.

In addition to positions in national parks, theme parks, and camp grounds, youths are expected to find work on the campaign trail in this election year - though much of that is likely to be unpaid. The summer Olympics will also boost employment prospects in the South.

While most teens are focused on the cash a summer job provides, there are other significant benefits both to the youths and society as a whole, social workers and criminologists say. Summer work helps youths develop important employment skills. It teaches maturity and responsibility, they say, and helps keep kids off the streets, away from crime and off drugs.

"There have been kids we've been involved with all year long and then we aren't in the summer," says Virginia Doss, social development director at the Portland Boys Club here. "We notice a huge change in how they act [when they return in the fall.] They've connected with kids they would not have connected with if they'd had a summer job."

US Labor Department predictions, based on youth employment for the first four months of 1996, indicate that fewer 16- to 24-year olds will find jobs this summer than last. But Labor Department economist John Stinson says those numbers may reflect the winter's dismal retail season more than a lack of available jobs in the coming months. The department estimates 23.7 million youths will be employed in July, the season's peak employment month, compared with 24.1 million who worked in July 1995.

In addition, fewer inner-city teens will be helped by the federally funded Summer Youth Employment Program because of cutbacks. This winter, Congress threatened to cancel the program outright. Though reduced funding came through last month, project coordinators say they are serving about one-third fewer low-income teens than last year.

But the private sector is expected to pick up some of the slack. Tourism and its related industries - one of the top sectors of youth employment - are on the upswing.

*Summer vacation predictions from the American Automobile Association and the Travel Industry Association of America show trip-taking will be 2 percent higher this year than in 1995.

*In Maine - where tourism is the No. 1 employer - hotel reservations indicate a strong season. "I've had the best spring I've ever had," says Gordon Lewis, restaurant and motel owner in Ogunquit, Maine, since the 1970s. "Things are looking most encouraging."

*Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., one of the largest youth summertime employers in the country, has launched an aggressive job search to fill positions in its new Disney's Boardwalk resort and Disney Institute in addition to its regular summer staffing. Officials say there are 2,100 job openings this summer.

Increased demand for young workers is expected to boost their typically minimum wage earnings this summer - especially welcome news to employees who say they work more for money than experience or career building.

"It's just a job to make money for the summer so I can get a car," says Deering High School sophomore Beth McKeen, of her newfound work at D'Angelo, a regional sandwich shop chain.

An informal Monitor survey of about 20 high school students at Deering found that all were planning to work this summer. Many teens will double up, working two jobs. Others will ditch their school-year job for more lucrative or fun seasonal work. Few high schoolers are in a job that relates to what they want to do later in life.

"I want to work with children, but I'm too young to make a decent salary doing it," says Monique Caterina, a Deering sophomore, who's working in the kitchen at Portland's Mercy Hospital.

But Dave Dubois, an accounting major at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., says first-time jobs teach teens more than they realize. A supervisor at Funtown USA in Saco, Maine, Mr. Dubois says he's learned valuable customer-relations lessons and management skills at the amusement park over the last four years. "It's a great job," he says, in the midst of painting a plastic jungle gym. "Unfortunately, I have to grow up soon."

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