Bleak teen jobs outlook: 25 percent unemployment and stiff competition

Teen jobs are hard to find as they compete with laid-off adults and fewer public-sector jobs. Some cities are raising cash to fund summer jobs.

Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor
Avi Salem, 17, stocks shelves at a retail store in Los Gatos, Calif. Avi got help from a nonprofit job-placement service.
RESEARCH: Geoff Johnson, GRAPHIC: Rich Clabaugh/Staff

It's never been easy being a teenager. Now, try being a teenager looking for work.

Only 1 in 4 teens is working today – the lowest proportion since the end of World War II, according to one researcher. Although some programs are trying to help young Americans get jobs, the unemployment rate for 16-to-19-year-olds who want to work now stands at 24.2 percent, according to the May report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, released Friday. Among African-American teens, the rate is 40.7 percent.

"I am not hesitant about calling it a crisis," says Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group.

It's a crisis with potentially important implications. When teens can't find work, they have time on their hands and can be prone to getting in trouble. One particular problem can be higher incidences of teen pregnancy. Also, in the long run, teens who don't work miss out on developing important skills for later on, such as learning to take orders from supervisors, getting along with co-workers, and coping with criticism.

"The more work experience they have, the higher the wage when they reach ages 20 to 25 years," says Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. "Many employers who are hiring say the kids don't have the 'soft' skills, but the only way to get them is to be in the workforce. So not having a job today affects employability in the future."

The scarcity of jobs for teens comes at a time when many are starting to search for summer jobs. In 2009, as part of the Obama stimulus program, Congress set aside $1.2 billion for youth activities, including summer jobs. But that money is now gone.

As a result, even jobs such as working as a lifeguard are expected to be in shorter supply. For example, New York City will create 23,000 summer jobs, down from 52,000 two years ago.

Many mayors are scrambling to raise money from the private sector to fund summer jobs. In Louisville, Ky., Mayor Greg Fischer has collected $420,000 in pledges – enough money to provide summer jobs for a couple hundred kids, says Michael Gritton, executive director of KentuckianaWorks, a workforce development agency.

Using money from the US Department of Labor (DOL), Louisville also runs a KentuckianaWorks Youth Career Center, which assists teens in finding more-permanent jobs. At the center, counselors help with such skills as building a résumé, setting goals, and performing well in an interview.

Still, for many teens in that program, finding a job is very challenging. Seventeen-year-old Victoria Martin, who lives with her mother in rural Shepherdsville, Ky., will have to juggle work with caring for her two children, ages 4 months and 2 years. But it's not the children that are the problem, says Victoria, who has earned her certified nursing assistant degree as well as her GED. She says potential employers such as nursing homes and hospitals have told her she must be 18 for their insurance purposes.

"It's just a matter of being patient. I turn 18 this September," she says.

But even some older teens are having difficulties finding work. One is Erin Allen, who is 19 and wants to get a job in a beauty salon. "I love nails and doing hair," she says, but so far she has not had any job offers.

Ms. Allen, who has a 10-month-old son, plans to go back to school for her GED in July, but in the meantime she has applied for work at a few Circle K convenience stores. She hasn't heard back.

Across America, teens have run into an onslaught of competition for entry-level jobs from older Americans who suffered financial losses during the recession and have had to supplement their income.

Some economists say many teen jobs were lost after Congress four years ago raised the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 an hour.

"Employers with these entry-level service-oriented positions, looking for low-skilled labor, pay very little and expect very little from it," says Dennis Hoffman, an economics professor at Arizona State University in Tempe. "When told they have to pay more than the marginal product is worth, they will be deterred from hiring them."

Another teen who's finding the job hunt difficult is 18-year-old Divine Favour Anene. Originally from Nigeria and another participant in the Kentucky program, he has been unable to find work – even with a GED. He wants a job in retailing or health care. He's applied to Wal-Mart and Kroger but has heard nothing back.

"I would say there is work out there, but you have to be a little more patient in this economic time," he says.

Indeed, some companies are gearing up to hire teens. In March, the DOL asked United Parcel Service to "match up" young DOL candidates with the company's plans for summer hiring. As a result, UPS says it will take on 1,500 "working students" who will get paid $8.50 to $9.50 an hour, plus medical benefits.

"No experience is necessary. We will train you, teach you, and hopefully you move forward and grow," says Matt Lavery, director of workforce training at UPS in Atlanta. "Ideally, the employment goes beyond the summer."

In northern California, John Hogan, chief executive officer of the staffing agency TeenForce, says he has recently signed up 15 businesses that are offering part-time work for 21 youths. In the past 10 months, TeenForce, which is only a year old, has placed 67 teens, Mr. Hogan says.

One of Hogan's goals is to improve the image of teen workers.

"Right now the image is not that good," he says. "But if you build a brand that is reliable, on time, and honest, it makes it easier for the next teen as well."

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