Jasmine Blocker has reached an impasse in her job hunt. After weeks of pounding the pavement, the 19-year-old Chicago native still hasn't found employment for the summer, and her applications have gone unanswered. Without a job, and with a child of her own to take care of, Ms. Blocker is growing frustrated.
"Now that I'm at my wit's end, I'm looking for any job. Restaurant, retail, anything. I think that's what it is - a lack of experience," she says. "Maybe people have had one or two jobs, but I've only had one."
Blocker is mired in one of the more common pitfalls faced by the millions of teenagers searching for jobs each summer: the Catch-22 of employment experience. Companies are reluctant to hire teens with little or no work history. But without a job to prove themselves, young people lack the experience necessary to jump-start a career.
Seasonal job applicants have always faced this chicken-and-egg challenge, and this year may offer little relief from that cycle. According to labor analysts, the job market for young people this summer will be nearly as austere as over the past several years, despite an upswing in employment numbers in the overall labor market.
"The last few summers saw some of the lowest teen employment rates in history," says Joseph McLaughlin, a research associate at the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University and one of the authors of an annual summer teen job-market report. They predict an employment rate of 37.4 percent for the summer of 2006 - marking only a slight improvement over last year's 36.8 percent.
The continuing job stagnation for teens comes at a time when their priorities seem to be shifting. Nearly 36 percent of teens cited a need to save money for college as the top reason for working this summer, according to the annual Junior Achievement Interprise Poll of nearly 1,500 teens published in May. Until this year, most teens had listed a need for spending money as their primary reason for seeking work.
"They're kind of seeing a more purposeful need to work," says Darrell Luzzo, senior vice president of education for JA Worldwide in Colorado Springs, Colo. "They know that because of the high cost of tuition and fees ... their parents will be reluctant to offer spending money," he says.
The prolonged lull in the summer labor market this decade is a surprise. During the decades after World War II, teenage employment followed a fairly consistent pattern. Teen hiring prospects rode on the outside of America's cyclical employment curve. During recessions, older workers would settle for the lower-skilled jobs normally awarded to teens and less- experienced applicants. "It wasn't surprising that [teens] were hit so hard by [the recession of] 2001," Mr. McLaughlin says. "What was surprising is that their recovery has been very slow."
Among other explanations, Northeastern's Center for Labor Market Studies points to a ballooning teenage population that has flooded the labor market. From 1992 to 2000, America's youth surged by 2.1 million, or 15 percent, to 16.5 million teenagers. Seasonal summer job opportunities haven't kept pace.
Labor market analysis shows that for many high schoolers, especially those who aren't college-bound, the summer job is the kind of germinal work experience that can set the tone for a successful career. That's why, in many regions, local and state governments are intervening in the labor market to make sure less-advantaged teenagers start out on the right foot.
"Frankly, sometimes we think that any work is good work because we know that income in high school, especially in the senior year, predicts your income in your early 20s," says Chris Smith, director of partnerships and employer organizing at the Boston Private Industry Council, one of the nation's leading school-to-work programs. "So next to education, we think that work experience is the best thing a student has."
The council negotiates with private and public employers - from national banks to hospitals to small merchants - to consider public high school students for low-wage, low-skill jobs. It then helps students with job hunts, résumé-writing, and interviews. Cities like Minneapolis and San Francisco are beginning to mimic the council's efforts.
"I think the dynamic has shifted a little, and increasingly [companies] are looking at high school students as their workforce for the next three to five years," says Mr. Smith. "As a region that's not growing in population, it's really essential that we maximize our investment in these students so that they can become the productive workers of tomorrow, and companies buy into that notion."
For Blocker, the time has come to stop pounding the pavement and start tapping the keys. She recently posted her résumé on teens4hire.org, a nonprofit job-search website geared toward teenagers. According to Renée Ward, director of teens4hire.org, the site advertises about 15,000 jobs from among 844 employers.
Nevertheless, the website typically attracts a pool of about 1.5 million teenage job-seekers, many of whom face the same kinds of challenges. For Blocker, those numbers are anything but encouraging.
"I don't know, we're all in the same boat," she says. "We all have the same experience."
Here are some job-hunting strategies from teens4hire.org, a nonprofit career website for teenagers seeking work:
1. Get good grades. Employers are more inclined to hire teens who do well in school.
2. Participate in school-sponsored activities like clubs and sports. Employers believe that this demonstrates an ability to get along with others and that's what they want.
3. Participate in community activities. Employers see this as a sign of your ability to serve others.
4. Ask around and go out and look for a job. Talk with everybody you know - teachers, parents, friends, (including people whom your parents and friends know) - about places that are hiring teens. Call or visit the location and apply. Most employers don't feel they need to advertise to find teenage workers and are impressed with those who take the initiative to ask for a job.
5. Complete applications carefully. Employers want to know about you, but they also look for neatness and accuracy on an application. Misspelled words and sloppy handwriting are a turnoff.
6. Be prepared to be interviewed on the spot. Employers begin sizing up applicants from the first time they see them. Dress appropriately for business. Nose and tongue rings might be cool among friends, but most employers still frown upon them.
7. Practice talking about yourself. Employers are impressed by teens who make eye contact, shake hands firmly, and act confidently. If you're an above-average student, say so. Emphasize talents, skills, and abilities that would be helpful on the job. Be positive, take your time answering questions, use complete sentences, and say what you'd bring to the job.
8. Learn something about the company. Employers are charmed by this. It shows you really take an interest in them.
9. Follow up. At the end of the interview, thank the interviewer for the opportunity. Ask when you will be notified if you have the job. Write a thank-you note to the interviewer. Contact him or her if you don't hear back within a week.
10. Earn a positive reference. If you land a job, be a good employee. Getting good references will be a valuable part of your ongoing career. Potential employers almost always ask past employers how well you performed on the job.