Why teens have a tough time finding summer work

Many are enrolling in summer classes or doing community service while others are squeezed out by adults competing for the same entry-level jobs.

This summer is shaping up as a tough one for many of America's youngest job seekers.

Camps still need counselors. Ice cream shops still need young arms with a knack for alternating between a scoop and a cash register. And the nation's job market is strong.

Yet teen employment rates haven't rebounded from the recession of 2001. Instead, these numbers are at historic lows.

The reasons include positive forces, such as the rise of new opportunities for summer education and community service. But the trend also reflects more competition from older workers for a shrinking pool of entry-level jobs.

In Boston, 17-year-old Dedric Due says he's scanning the newspaper ads for a job, and so far hasn't found one. With a self-confident bearing, he says he'd like to be an assistant music teacher. But just about anything, from construction to retail, would do. "I'd do whatever job would make me money," he says.

The cooler job market for teens is a challenge not just for them, but perhaps for the whole economy. That's because the young generation is the future workforce.

"How do you learn [to work]? You spend time in the workplace," says Andrew Sum, an economist at Northeastern University in Boston. "Fewer kids are getting serious work experience during their high school years."

It's a year-round challenge, but especially important during the summer, when school is out and more young people seek work.

Consider one measure of the youth labor market, the share of 16- to 19-year-olds who are employed each July. Typically this number, as tracked by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics since 1948, has reached above 50 percent. But the ratio began falling in 1998, dipped below 50 percent in 2002, and has spent the past four summers below 45 percent.

The pattern in summer is echoed year round. As of May, for example, the same ratio of employment to population stood at a six-decade low of 34.6 percent, after an adjustment for seasonal fluctuations.

Why is this happening?

The trend is partly a story of changing choices by teens and their parents. Many, especially in upper- or middle-class neighborhoods, have decided that academic or volunteer activities may look better on college applications.

But some economists who study the teen labor market say jobs are also scarcer than in past years, affecting young people of all backgrounds. Finding work remains much harder for young black, Latino, and Asian-Americans than for their white peers.

On Washington Street here, Dedric isn't the only young African-American hoping for a job. Just down the block, Gerald Richardson, 13, has been volunteering after school, mentoring other kids at the Salvation Army. He says he wants to do more of that, for pay, during the summer.

He has a good shot at getting his wish, since city funding will help create 40 jobs here. But last year, this same community center was able to hire 48 young people like Gerald.

"Funding is tough," says Matt Parker, who will be doing the hiring. He says job opportunities are slimmer now than when he was Gerald's age in the mid-1990s.

"Kids are competing for a lot of jobs with adults now," Mr. Parker says, whether it's bagging groceries or doing a financial internship, as he did one summer.

The challenges faced by young Boston residents are mirrored, to varying degrees, in communities nationwide.

Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies, which Professor Sum heads, predicted in April that just 36.5 percent of teens will have jobs this summer, down from 37.4 percent last year and 45.3 percent in 2000. Those numbers are seasonally adjusted, smoothing out differences between summer and school-year employment, so they are lower than unadjusted summer numbers. What's significant, and surprising, is the direction of the forecast.

"Extraordinarily weak," given that it comes after four years of solid economic growth, Sum says.

He points to several reasons:

•Immigrants are taking many jobs that used to go to young adults.

•Retirement-age people are returning to the workforce in greater numbers, either part- or full-time.

•Competition from the college-age crowd is up, as many 20-somethings fail to find jobs that match their education. Employers opt for more educated over less-educated applicants.

•Federal funding for summer jobs – often raised in the wake of urban riots or crime waves – has been cut since 2000.

If businesses have good reasons for hiring fewer teens, one result may be a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. In surveys, employers often complain that when today's young people leave high school or college they lack needed skills or a work ethic. One study last year by the business group the Conference Board was titled, "Are they really ready to work?" Employers' answer was no.

In part, what's happening is that careers are requiring more skills in an era of technological change and global commerce. That puts new demands on education and also on employers to provide stepping stones into the workplace.

"You only learn to work by working," says Richard Murnane of the Harvard School of Education in Cambridge, Mass.

Other factors may also be eroding the opportunities for early employment.

A newly passed rise in the federal minimum wage, which takes effect in July, will make employers think twice before opening a position for unskilled help, many economists say. These economists don't necessarily see the minimum wage as bad policy, but some say government subsidies are needed to help young people connect to the world of work.

At the same time, others say that the overall decline in teen employment reflects the presence of more choices, not fewer.

"The teens don't want to participate" in jobs. "There are a lot more demands put on their summers," says Peter Morici, a University of Maryland economist.

Some have shifted their summer focus from earning money to earning credits.

"A lot of high schools are reorganizing themselves around career clusters or career pathways," explains Sionna Grassbaugh, a spokeswoman at Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque, where 200 high school students have enrolled in classes this summer.

Moreover, while many teens have dropped out of the labor force, millions do find work. The jobs are often traditional ones in retailing or mowing lawns, but a rising number are paid internships or jobs with greater opportunities, says John Challenger, a labor expert who heads a Chicago outplacement firm.

The Albuquerque Publishing Co. in New Mexico recently hired about 15 high school students. "It's a really well-rounded program," says organizer Dianne Campbell. The teens perform production and support activities, and learn about the whole newspaper operation, she says.

Summer jobs often aren't life-changing experiences, Mr. Morici says. But "the one thing you do get ... is a sense of the value of a college education."

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