Why Collin Mayer Won't Be Washing Dishes This Summer

Calling all teenagers. With the Dow Jones soaring and US unemployment sinking to the lowest point in 20 years, the job market in many parts of America is tighter than the twist cap on a tube of Super Glue. Especially at the lower end of the wage scale, this means more "Help Wanted" signs than help available.

With the exception of large, inner-city areas, say economists, the summer of 1997 might be the best in a quarter century for teenagers seeking jobs, and the worst for employers seeking workers.

"I've seen Burger Kings offering $7 per hour, way above the minimum wage, just to keep their help," says Marty Rome, public-relations director for Kelly Services Inc., a nationwide service providing temporary help to corporations. "I don't know many teens who will even bother going to a job for less."

The typical attitude is reflected by Collin Mayer, a 17-year-old Los Angeleno who is getting $8 to $10 per hour at a concession cart outside Universal Studios. His sister, 19-year-old Arianne, gets $125 to $175 per day as a production assistant, running errands for local film and television directors.

"I couldn't imagine working for minimum wage in a hotel or restaurant," says Collin.

Collin says he is saving to buy a used pickup truck for $1,500 and needs another $1,600 to $1,800 for insurance and still more for gas and upkeep. Such attitudes are leaving employers in key vacation spots in the lurch.

"Not only is demand strong but the number of folks entering their teen years is diminishing," says Mark Zandy, economist at Regional Financial Associates in Pennsylvania. "Given that the economy is so robust, and more people are going on vacation to the resort areas and restaurants where teens are employed, the combination means great opportunity for teenagers from Maine to Monterrey [Calif.]."

That's not exactly comforting news to Suzanne Flint, who has helped run the Blue Star Motor Inn, in Westerly, R.I., for 17 years. She says the motel can't find enough teenagers to hire as housekeepers and can't keep the ones it does hire.

"This is the worst I've seen it," says Ms. Flint. "Motels, hotels, restaurants all across the state are having the same problem."

According to Leonard Lardaro, an economics professor at the University of Rhode Island, his state is just one of several vacation-heavy destinations finding a dearth of teenage help for low wages. "It's not true everywhere, but in states where there are lots of seasonal, leisure needs, the problem is especially serious," says Professor Lardaro.

The problem is supply and demand. With employers doing so well in the bustling economy, many can pay more to employees. So teenagers can either demand more money or just move on to the places that offer it, leaving the lowest-paying jobs behind.

On Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, Calif., strings of restaurants and retail stores have "Help Wanted" signs in the window.

"Teenagers who want work in that lower wage range are hard to find and harder to keep," adds Erika Wenstrom, head waitress at Skewers Restaurant.

There is at least one important downside in the story, say a number of national economists: The abundance of available, lower-wage jobs has not helped dent unemployment figures for blacks and Hispanics in many large metropolitan areas. National statistics show joblessness among white teens is around 18 percent. The number for blacks is 33 percent, and for Hispanics, 23 percent.

"The economic recovery has been uneven for cities," says Robert Ginsburg, research director at the Midwest Center for Labor Research. While employment is booming on the North Side of Chicago, for instance, it is not doing well on the West and South Sides, he says. Often such inequities occur because lower-income minorities do not have the money or means to make it to where jobs are.

"There is a tourist area in Wisconsin known as the Dells that has plenty of openings," notes Mr. Ginsburg, "but blacks on the South Side of Chicago have no way of getting there."

Because of such inequities, many economists lament that the surging economy has not trickled down to those at the bottom.

"Although there is a lot of stuff open at low wages, they are the kind of part-time jobs that people in the inner city cannot make a living out of," says Kate Bronfenbrenner, an economist at the Cornell University School of Labor Relations, in Ithaca, N.Y. "These are not the kinds of jobs that a younger teen can make a living off or an older one can use to ... feed a family."

Jared Bernstein, a research economist at the Economic Policy Institute, also warns against too sanguine a judgment on current employment availability for US youth.

"I am still concerned about the bottom 50 percent of the working class," he says. "I hear employers complaining that 'gee, I can't find people to fill my job slots,' but I don't hear enough of them adding ... 'at the wages I am offering.' Overall wages have been falling for these people, in real terms, for 20 years."

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