This was the summer 16-year-old Sonja Coles was supposed to get a job and earn enough money to buy a car. Instead, on a recent July afternoon, she was waiting for the bus at a teen hangout in Worcester, Mass.
"I've already applied [for] three jobs and I haven't heard back from any of them," she says. "I think it's unfair.... There's kids who need the job, and they'll work hard for it."
Summer jobs are sometimes hard to find. This year, teens like Sonja face especially tough competition as a rising tide of unemployed adults moves into the part-time, poorly paid positions that were once the preserve of America's youths.
Teen employment has been falling for many reasons since the late 1990s. But the current economic downturn pushed last month's teen employment rate to its lowest point in 60 years. Another measure, the teen unemployment rate, reached 18.7 percent in June, a level not seen since 2003.
Such numbers alarm mayors, who worry about a summer spike in violence in their cities, and experts on labor economics, concerned about the future employability of youths who don't find a job. But here in Worcester, as well as many other cities, programs are under way that appear to provide a solution.
Recessions are particularly challenging for teens "because they are the first people to get fired and the last to get hired," says Harry Holzer, a labor-market studies professor at Georgetown University in Washington. "What's unusual is that it comes on top of a long-term trend that was already fairly negative. The long-term trend is hitting low-income and minority teenagers especially hard."
In June, for example, the teen employment rate stood at 37.1 percent, a 2.5 percentage point drop from a year ago and a 14.3 percentage point drop from what it was at the peak of the boom in the 1990s, say experts at Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies.
Part of the reason is that teens in urban areas face tougher competition from new immigrants and older workers, say experts. Also, high transportation costs and the fact that many youths don't drive make it difficult for them to get out of a segregated neighborhood, "so there's a mismatch between where people live and where the jobs are," says Ramón Borges-Méndez, professor of public policy at Boston University.
Cities are no longer in a position to pick up the slack. In 2000, the federal government sharply cut funding for its Summer Jobs Program. "Funding for summer jobs is a fraction of what it used to be, and they have way more kids applying than they have job slots for," says Joe McLaughlin, research assistant at the Center for Labor Market Studies.
Boston, for example, hired 3,600 of more than 7,000 teenagers who applied for jobs this summer. So, like other large cities, Boston has created a partnership with businesses and nonprofit groups that this summer is hiring an additional 6,000 students, according to data from Meredith Weenick, a spokeswoman for the city.
Teen unemployment has long-term effects, too, experts say. "If kids don't get jobs, then they don't get their foot in the labor-market door and they don't get job experience, training, and they are more likely to stay in mediocre jobs their whole life," says Professor Holzer.
Some groups are working to reverse the long-term trend, such as the National Career Academy Coalition (NCAS), which creates and supports a national network of career academies. Worcester Vocational Technical High School, with a large minority population, has applied the career-academy model. The four career clusters at Worcester Tech mirror growth sectors in Worcester's economy – health and information technology, for example. Students can choose from among 24 occupations, ranging from cosmetology to automotive technology. With financial support from businesses, culinary art students run a restaurant, finance and marketing students manage a bank, and health and human services students staff a clinic at the school.
Ronny Perez, an incoming senior, is practicing his skills fixing and remodeling the school for $8 an hour. His plan is to go to college and to work in construction. But first, he's going to open a bank account with his first paycheck at the school's bank.
For 11th-grader Josh Barros, carpentry is a backup plan. "My carpentry is my second job, so if college doesn't work out, then I'm gonna try to own my own business and I'm gonna do carpentry," he says.
The results are promising: More than 95 percent of the students are employed upon graduation; 70 percent continue on to college. Last year, 98 percent of the seniors passed the state's standard graduation exam, according to Peter Crafts, the school's director of vocational education.
Those numbers mirror national results. Career academies substantially improved the post-high-school workplace prospects of young men from low-income urban settings, according to a recent study by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., a public policy think tank in New York.
Not everyone's a fan. Such programs train low-income and minority students to perform certain jobs while affluent whites get college-prep courses, says Daria Hall at the Education Trust, an advocacy group in Washington.
Ultimately, career academies "cannot be the entire answer," says Holzer. But linked with early childhood education programs and youth-development activities, they can "keep young people engaged in school and linked to work."
[Editor's note: The original version misspelled Daria Hall's name.]