They are as much a part of summer's montage as miniature golf, ice cream, and muggy nights: teens dipping their toes in the world of work.
But the number of adolescents nationwide embarking on that annual rite of passage is abating. Last summer, the teen employment rate was the lowest since 1948, with only 36 percent of those ages 16 to 19 holding jobs, down from 45 percent in 2000. This year, although some economists say an improving economy may boost the prospects of older teens, the latest forecast by Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies in Boston shows no budge in the overall summer employment rate.
Competition from older workers and foreigners has squeezed the market for job-hungry teens. This comes as companies, operating with ever-leaner staffs, are less prone to take on the role of mentor for young people with little or no experience.
In a parallel trend, many teens have opted out of traditional jobs in retail and recreation for unpaid internships or to enroll in sports and music camps or other activities that might buff their college applications. But for thousands of adolescents who look for work to no avail, especially those from low-income families, a dearth of summer jobs means more than a scramble for cash.
"As soon as a young person says, 'I want to work,' it's a golden opportunity to start to groom and nurture that young person," says Renee Ward, the founder of teens4hire.org, which connects teens and employers. "They make the connection between their education and the world of work ... and then can go back to school and say, 'I know why I'm here.' "
The teen employment rate typically falls with national recessions, but it is not expected to recover this summer despite an improved economy, according to the Northeastern report. It is attributed, in part, to immigrants and older workers turning to hourly work. Employers often perceive older workers to be more mature or reliable and still available long after teens have returned to school.
"A lot of companies we talk to say blatantly, 'We are not looking for young adults, we are looking for older workers,' including retirees," says Ms. Ward.
Shanice Gonsalves is hoping to overcome those barriers this summer - a feat she did not conquer last year. A high school sophomore in the Boston area, she sent out applications to T.J. Maxx, Foot Locker, Footaction, and Marshalls last summer, but they all told her she was too young, she says. She helped around the house and looked after her younger brothers and cousin instead.
This summer she is hoping to get a job at a summer camp or day care through Action for Boston Community Development's (ABCD) SummerWorks, a jobs and education program for low-income young people from Boston's inner city.
It would be her first paycheck - and she says it would get split in half, one half for her mother, the other for her older sister. "They buy all my clothes, shoes, notebooks," she says. "They do everything for me."
Teenagers from low-income families, many of whom hand over part of their paychecks to their families, have a particularly hard time finding work. "The way they speak, the way they dress, they are not accustomed to going to places on time," says Robert Coard, ABCD's president. "They don't have any networks with employers even in neighborhoods in which they live."
There are some bright signs in the teen job market. Massachusetts has restored $3 million toward youth employment programs this year. Mr. Coard says the funding could help to place 2,000 teens in jobs this summer, doubling that of last year.
And Ward says that, with 50,000 openings accessible through teens4hire.org, this year, opportunity has grown by 100 percent from 2004 - though part of that percentage change represents the company's own growth.
Demand is particularly high in tourist-heavy areas, such as Cape Cod, where employers found themselves shut out of a seasonal worker visa program earlier this year.
Even as some employers require prior work experience, some jobs are perfect for youths, says John Kraus, who manages Cape Escape Miniature Golf in Cape Cod and hires two or three teens each summer. "It's an easy-going atmosphere here," he says.
Shawn Boyer, co-founder and chief executive of SnagAJob.com, which focuses on part-time and hourly employment, says certain industries, such as product demonstration and merchandising, are coveting teens. "If you are Mountain Dew, you want teens handing out the product," he says, "It doesn't work as well if you are a 65-year-old woman [passing out the sample]."
For parents, politicians, and social workers, any chance to improve individual opportunities and keep communities safe are welcome - many say that job programs like SummerWorks steer kids away from drugs and violence.
"I would like a better future for them, than being in the streets and getting in trouble," says Clarisa Cooper, a mother and guardian of five children, one of whom is waiting to hear if she has received a job through ABCD. "They need to be looking to the future, not just thinking about the moment."
In 2004, the percentage of US teens who had jobs hit its lowest level since 1948.
Year Employment rate*
2000 45.0 %
*Percentage of teens, age 16 to 19, who have summer employment.
Source: Northeastern University Center for Labor Market Studies