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Many Teen Workers Are Going Jobless This Summer

Haley Small is having a lazy summer—but not by choice.

Cat Gwynn | Stone | Getty Images

The 16-year-old expected to be employed by a day camp she worked at last year; in May, however, the camp told her it could hire her for only one week.

Small began looking for a job near her Glen Rock, N.J. home, trying everything from local shops to preschools to national fast-food chains. No luck.

Instead, Small spends most of her day at home, watching television or baking. Bored, she has started running, she says, "just to get out of the house.” Occasionally, she baby-sits for pocket money.

Small says the summer has been disappointing.

“It’s good experience and it's good to put on your college application,” she says. “You can’t put sitting around and doing nothing on your application.”

Small's story is a common one around the country. The teen unemployment rate in June was at 25.7 percent—about three times the national rate of 9.5 percent—and up from last year's rate of 24.3 percent.

Several factors have aligned to hurt what was once a vibrant and reliable labor market, experts say. In some cases, unemployed older Americans or illegal immigrants have taken the jobs, while an increase in the minimum wage has made it too expensive for some employers to hire teens.

“It’s gotten really dire,” says Michael Saltsman a research fellow at the Employment Policies Institute. “Even as the economy recovers, they’re still having a difficult time finding work.”

This summer season has been especially cruel. Employers have added the least amount of jobs in the traditional May-June hiring period in several decades, according to a report by hiring firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

In May, employers added just 6,000 jobs, the least since 1969, according to the report. In June—the month when most of the summer hiring is done—employers added 497,000 teenagers to their payrolls, down 29 percent from last year, and the least since 1951.

Small says that among a group of 25 friends, only one has found consistent work for the summer. Another ten have picked up occasional babysitting gigs. “They’re not hiring 16-year-olds,” says Small.

What they are hiring are people in the 20-29 year-old group, who can’t find full-ime employment, and the 55 to 75 years-old individuals, who are having similar issues or coming out of retirement.

Andrew Sum, professor of economics and director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, says the two groups are taking "jobs that ten years ago used to go to teenagers,” at retail, entertainment and fast food establishments.

In construction and landscaping, illegal immigrants have pushed teens out of jobs, says Sum, who co-authored a recent study, “The Nation’s Youth Labor Market, 2000-2010: The Descent into the Depression.”

Employers are choosing older workers, saying it’s cheaper to hire a more experienced worker, than, say, two teenagers, who will need more training, experts say.

“It’s too expensive for us to hire teens that don’t have experience,” said Karin Devencenzi, the general manager at Southpark Seafood Grill & Wine Bar in Portland, Ore. "By the time you get them on board, with a lack of experience, it doesn’t make sense.”

Devencenzi also blames the minimum wage. At $8.40 an hour, Oregon has one of the highest minimum wages in the country. The national minimum rose from $6.55 to $7.35 in July 2009. (Several other states have a rate higher than the federal mandate.)

In a tough economy, keeping wages down is more important than ever, says Saltsman. “Passing costs to consumers isn’t an option because people’s wallets are pinched in a recession,” he says.

Observers and participants alike say that the decline in the teen labor market has greater ramifications for both the economy and society.

Alexander Floris, 17, is jobless after applying for about 30 different jobs at retail or fast food establishments in Eustis, Fla.

“Working at a young age, it determines the rest of your life,” says Floris. “I personally think it shows responsibility, self awareness and being able to take care of yourself.”

With less experience on their resume, some teens might find it hard to compete for jobs when they’re older, experts say.

“Employers across the spectrum are going to opt for someone with more experience.” says Dion Lim, president and COO of online job-search site SimplyHired.com. “There’s no replacement for work experience.”

Small doesn't need convincing. She will start her summer job hunt earlier next year. “I don’t want this to happen again,” she says.

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