Summer hiring: Teens face even tougher job odds

New high school grads and college students home for the summer are getting squeezed out of the job market. Only 1 in 4 teens found a job last summer, and this summer is projected to be just as bad.

The unemployment rate is at 9.1 percent for the U.S. labor pool, but for teens ages 16 to 19 it's nearly 25 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That just reflects those searching for jobs in April and doesn't count people who have stopped looking.

Employment has declined from nearly half of 16- to 19-year-olds holding jobs in 2000 to a quarter last year. Millions of young people are facing the summer without their first job, without work experience, spending money, college savings and the perspective of what it's like to be a worker, says Joseph McLaughlin, senior research associate with the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.

The center's prognosis for this summer: same as last year.

Experienced workers are taking jobs traditionally held by first-job seekers. Young adults are staying in entry level jobs because they can't move up. That leaves the youngest job seekers at home on the couch.

Ike Powell, who works with youth programs at Palm Beach County Workforce Alliance, says he's seeing no more jobs for teens and young workers this year.

"It is very competitive," Powell says.

Camp counselors, food service workers, retail jobs - all these traditional lower-wage jobs that offered employment for teens and young adults are harder for young people to land, he says.

That's true in Boynton Beach, where the city hires eight to 15 summer camp counselors every year, says Virginia Shea of the Recreation and Parks Department. The $12-an-hour jobs are limited to high-school graduates who are at least 18, but this year teachers have applied in much larger numbers than in the past.

"We're seeing (applicants) with a lot of experience with children," Shea says. "We're really grateful that we're seeing a better group of applicants."

Many employers have reduced the number of jobs they are filling. Many workers are staying in those lower level jobs because there is nowhere else to go, says McLaughlin, who was one of the authors of a study released in April that shows the job market has gotten progressively worse for teens since 2000. If the same percentage of teens was working this year as 2000, there would be 3.7 million more teens employed this summer, he says.

"That's a huge loss of first-time job experience in those years," McLaughlin says.

Jessica Elise is a lucky one, she says, for having any job and especially one she likes.

The 19-year-old Palm Beach State College student started looking for a job earlier this year. She searched. She interviewed. She was giving up.

Then she went to a Riviera Beach-sponsored youth job fair, where she found La-Z-Boy store manager Karen Parker-Bingham. She got the job in March.

"I just wanted to get out of the whole spoiledness," Elise says. "My mom didn't believe me until I got a job. Now she loves me not asking for anything."

Elise didn't look for a job immediately when she graduated from Palm Beach Lakes High School in June 2010, though she has worked for her family's companies. School was a priority.

But now financial aid has been cut and she sees her mother, who at times has worked two jobs, struggle.

Jobs at the La-Z-Boy Furniture Galleries Palm Beach Gardens location are $9 an hour for new employees, Parker-Bingham says.

She plans to hire two more young people for the summer and was recruiting at the job fair Riviera Beach Mayor Thomas Masters hosted last week. In general, the store has always had at least one student on the payroll, 18 years or older, she says.

"A lot of them, once they hit the ground running, they are so excited to work with a company, especially like ours," Parker-Bingham says.

They bring new ideas and new ways to sell, and they have different processes and technologies.

As someone who got her first job at 14 or 15, Parker-Bingham knows the benefits for teens and young adults.

"These are skills they can take with them when they go to school," she says.

But for young people from low-income families in urban areas, the job outlook is the worst, McLaughlin says. Suburban teens tend to have better networks through families and friends to find jobs.

That is why the U.S. Labor Department is urging communities to help young people find jobs through the Summer Jobs USA Make the Committment! program. Its goal is getting employers to commit to 100,000 jobs for workers ages 16 to 24.

Masters, who has held job rallies for young people for the past seven years in Riviera Beach, joined the initiative. The city has another youth job fair starting at 9 a.m. June 14 at John F. Kennedy Middle School - just for 2011 high school graduates.

"We're not just out there giving young people jobs," says Masters, who first holds a session for the applicants on how to dress, interview and keep a job. "We're out there giving young people skills to keep a job."

He only invites companies to the job fair that have openings and will hire young people. And it works.

Chris Schlitz, call center director for CB Insurance Group, hired three teens for $10 an hour at the latest youth job fair. They started Monday.