A summer spent folding and refolding sweaters at the mall was once a teen rite of passage. But as the end of the school year nears, young people hoping to find summer retail jobs must contend with a wave of shuttered storefronts and an industry in revolt.
Fourteen retail chains filed for bankruptcy protection through early April, nearly as many as filed all of last year, and a barrage of stores where young faces often greet customers – Wet Seal, The Limited, RadioShack, Rue 21, Payless Shoe Source, American Apparel, Abercromie & Fitch – have announced mass store closures.
Long a go-to for teens seeking summer jobs or their first shot at employment, retailers for years have been buckling under shifting consumer tastes and the rise of online shopping. But this year's store "meltdown," as it has been called, has some worried that youth will lose out on a key early work experience that gives them foundational job skills.
The good news is that the meltdown is happening when the job market is strong and there are plenty of other entry-level opportunities. Strong summer hiring last year pushed total teen employment past 6 million, the highest it's been since 2008, according to the Chicago outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
But John Challenger, CEO of the firm, worries that the shift away from traditional sales floor gigs and toward the new retail jobs reality – at warehouses fulfilling online orders – may hamper teens in the long run because those jobs may be harder for them to get.
"You can walk down the street to your local town center and ask for a job," Challenger said. "That's different than going 5 miles out of town and applying at the local warehouse."
Retailers have announced more than 50,000 job cuts in 2017, according to numbers compiled by Challenger, Gray & Christmas. Four months into the year, the nation has lost far more retail jobs than it had by the same time during each of the past seven years.
Youths could be disproportionately affected as the retail sales sector, the largest job category in the nation and in the Chicago metro area, sheds jobs. Clothing, shoe, electronics and sporting goods stores have some of the lowest average worker ages of all industry sectors.
Despite the retail bloodbath, Chicago-area workforce officials say sales jobs remain plentiful.
"I think those (store closures) are spread out and may not have as large an impact as we might think," said Karin Norington-Reaves, CEO of the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership, the agency that distributes federal workforce funds to local organizations. "There are still plenty of opportunities in retail and service" and related jobs in warehouses or transportation, distribution and logistics.
Her agency defines retail to include food service and hospitality, areas she says are growing.
Porschia Davis, program manager for Evanston's summer youth employment initiative, which finds jobs for 14- to 18-year-olds, said she is seeing more retail jobs for teens. Smaller retailers that struggle financially are seeking teen workers through the city's program, which helps employers pay their wages. And some larger retailers, including grocery stores, The Gap and Old Navy, have stepped up their teen hiring, she said.
But retail isn't the holy grail for teens anyway, she said. Most teens in the program prefer to work as camp counselors or on the beach serving food or taking tokens, Davis said, and there's been growing interest in custodial jobs.
As bricks-and-mortar stores dwindle, there are youth-friendly alternatives.
Tom Gimbel, CEO of LaSalle Network, a Chicago staffing company, said young people likely will turn more to hospitality and food service, where turnover and worker demand are high. Other teens might consider construction, which could be useful experience if the infrastructure overhaul the Trump administration has promised comes to pass, he said.
Less sweater-folding and more table-busing could be good for young people as they develop work ethic, Gimbel said.
"They learn more about harder work, different shifts," he said. "I think it creates a lot of empathy in the white-collar world for the blue-collar world."
Amazon's hiring spree at its growing number of fulfillment and distribution centers could absorb some traditional retail workers. The e-commerce giant, which has five warehouses open and four more planned in Illinois, announced in April that it would add 30,000 part-time fulfillment center and customer service jobs nationally in the next year, a 75 percent increase.
But those jobs typically require candidates to be at least 18 years old and may not appeal to the same people attracted to standing behind a register. For example, the company's job description for a warehouse associate position in Romeoville warns that temperatures sometimes exceed 90 degrees.
Snagajob, a job site for hourly work, has seen a 20 percent increase in 16- to 19-year-olds applying for food and restaurant jobs this year compared with last, and a 17 percent jump for hotel and hospitality jobs. Retail has had a much more muted 6 percent growth in applications from teenagers.
Health care, a fast-growing sector, saw a 54 percent increase in applications from teens, who can fill jobs in senior care that require good attitude and empathy but not long experience, said Peter Harrison, Snagajob's CEO.
The gig economy also may be picking up some of retail's slack, he said. A grocery chain told him recently that it was losing workers to Instacart, an on-demand grocery delivery service, even though the service pays less and offers fewer benefits, because the workers wanted to make their own schedules.
Still, Instacart requires its shoppers be at least 18, while Uber and Lyft require drivers to be at least 21, so on-demand platforms are out of reach for many teens.
The overall hiring outlook is positive, Harrison said, especially this summer. A Snagajob survey of 1,000 hiring managers found 67 percent plan to hire more workers this summer than they did last year, a big jump from the 40 percent who said the same in last year's survey.
But underemployment – people working not enough hours – remains a challenge. And while there is enough growth in other sectors to balance the retail closures in the short term, Harrison said a movement toward automation in food service and other industries is likely to affect jobs where teens are finding opportunity.
"While I don't think it's a big problem today, I think it's a big problem around the corner," he said.
Teens' summer job prospects amid the changing retail landscape depend in part on where they live.
At Oak Park River Forest High School, Peter Hostrawser, who leads its business education department, said he has seen more students shirking traditional teen jobs altogether.
Many students opt for summer school or athletic camps instead. Others seek internships or ways to start their own businesses.
"We have a lot of students that through social media have grown a lawn business or a spring cleaning business," he said.
Matt Speracino, 18, a senior at Oak Park River Forest, is one such entrepreneur. After attending a camp last year at the University of Chicago he developed an app, with the help of a programmer from the university, that consolidates a person's social media profiles into one shareable QR code, so that when people meet they can exchange information easily. The free app, under review by the Apple store, would make money by selling users' data, he said.
Speracino also for three years has worked year-round as a host at Delia's Kitchen in Oak Park, walking distance from his house, earning $10 an hour and picking up extra shifts during the summer.
It is more difficult to find a job in retail than in restaurants, he said. In part that's because stores are closing, he said, but also they often require more experience, and their daytime hours don't tend to jibe with students' schedules.
Across town at Excel Academy of Southwest in Chicago's Marquette Park neighborhood, the recent spate of retail closures means little to students for whom retail wasn't much of an option to begin with.
"There's not a lot of retail around, you have to go out of the neighborhood," said Vivian Grayson, an 18-year-old senior who lives in Englewood and has worked in fast food.
Grayson, who is interested in fashion, would like to work in stores like Rue 21 or Charlotte Russe, but getting to the nearest mall, Ford City, is difficult. A bus she would need stops running at 8 p.m., a problem if a shift goes late.
Deshawn Washington, 17, who also lives in Englewood, said the risk of violence keeps some students from traveling to certain neighborhoods for a job. He has worked informal jobs baby-sitting and at a barber shop, earning about $35 to $40 a day.
The school has a Facebook group where jobs are posted and students do online searches. But applying online is frustrating and time consuming, with recruitment sites filled with ads and surveys that redirect as they try to fill out applications.
Grayson, who hopes to go to cosmetology school and makes money informally doing people's nails, said it would be helpful if summer jobs parlayed into year-round part-time jobs. And while retail sounds fun, training or jobs in technology would be more helpful to ensure she and her peers aren't made irrelevant by automation.
Grayson recalled going out to dinner recently and having a computer take her order.
"We need jobs that's going to teach us to make these machines," she said, "because these machines are going to be doing our jobs."