Summer job market especially tough for poor kids

Stop by your favorite fast-food joint this summer, and you might notice that the cashier who rings up your order is missing something.

Pimples.

Rising unemployment among experienced workers is squeezing high schoolers out of the retail, restaurant and service jobs teens have traditionally filled during warmer months.

At two Tropical Smoothie Café locations on West Charleston Boulevard in Summerlin, teen hiring fell about 20 percent this spring, estimated co-owner Jessica Boykin. Teenagers account for about half of Boykin’s 40-person staff; the other half comes partly from a steady stream of experienced job applicants in their 20s, 30s and even 50s.

As summer arrives, the job market for teens is suffering along with the rest of the economy. And those jobs will be harder to find this year for the poorer kids who need them the most as laid-off adults compete for work at the lowest rung. The unemployment rate in Las Vegas reached 5.6 percent in March, compared with 4.4 percent in the same month a year earlier, according to statistics from Nevada’s Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation. The increase in joblessness means stiffer competition for teens seeking work.

"Summer is a time when the rich get richer and the poor get poorer," said Ron Fairchild, executive director of the Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University.

Wealthier teens are more likely to have the family and school connections that help them land summer jobs — as counselors at the camps they attend, lifeguards at the pools where they swim and clerks at the stores where they shop.

Last summer, half of teens whose families earned $75,000 to $100,000 worked, according to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. Less than a third of teens from families making less than $20,000 had work.

Black teens in central cities had just a 15 percent employment rate. And because early work experience makes it easier to get a job as a grown-up, the tougher market for poor teens hobbles them as they get older.

"The kids who need work the most get it the least," said Andrew Sum, director of the center.

The teen job market, like the overall economy, is looking bleak.

The overall unemployment rate for teens jumped from 15.4 percent in April to 18.7 percent in May, the highest rate since 2003. Roughly 200,000 teens, an unusually high monthly number, started looking for work. The unemployment number is based on how many teens are actively –and unsuccessfully — seeking jobs.

Teen employment is down sharply since 2000, when the economy peaked and the Clinton administration ended a federal summer jobs program. The rate of teens who had jobs last year was the lowest in more than half a century, Sum said.

It’s not that there are fewer jobs for teenagers.

In Las Vegas, the number of hourly positions listed through job-seeking portal SnagAJob.com jumped 20 percent in May when compared with the same month a year earlier. Companies including Marriott Vacation Club, Hyatt Place and Rhino Staging & Event Solutions want more hourly workers and have marketed jobs through the site. The number of listings held steady year over year at Teens4Hire.org as well, as did positions available through the Clark County School District’s Career and Technical Education job bank.

Competition is the real issue.

Marie Coger, operations manager at Premier Staffing Solutions in Las Vegas, said the local job market is flooded with workers willing to take positions below their skill level. Administrative assistants accept assembly work, while carpenters and electricians settle for jobs as general laborers. The drop in pay can amount to nearly $10 an hour.

What’s more, retired seniors with decades of work behind them are jumping back into the labor pool because Social Security checks no longer cover basic costs such as gasoline, which averaged $4.26 a gallon for unleaded, regular fuel in Las Vegas on Tuesday.

Companies, eager to get the "best bang for their buck," snap up such veteran employees, Coger said.

"They’re going to get an experienced worker who comes in for the same price as someone else they would have to train," she said.

Boykin first noticed the uptick in seasoned job hunters at Tropical Smoothie in November. She said she hasn’t seen anything like it in the seven years she’s been in business.

"When I started out, we’d see a lot of 16-year-olds applying," Boykin said. "Now, we see a lot of older folks, because there are so many things going on with the economy."

As long as she has the choice, Boykin opts for "older people who are a little more responsible." Among her recent hires: a 30-year-old Michigan transplant who’s been looking for five months for a clerical job to match her experience.

The teen-job drought could have wide-ranging implications, Coger noted.

Teens who can’t find work miss out on the key life experiences that come with a first job. They also lose the opportunity to "find their calling" while trying out several potential career paths, Coger said.

Teens should take important lessons from today’s employment woes, Coger added.

"I know right now it’s very trying on them," she said, "but this should be an eye-opener that their education means a lot and they need to stick with it."

Cities that offer programs to help poorer kids find work have been besieged by applicants.

In Buffalo, N.Y., the mayor’s summer jobs program had 4,500 applicants last year for 2,500 slots. This year, the program will focus on teens at or below the poverty line and limit jobs to one teen per household.

"Four children from one family applied," said Tanya Perrin-Johnson, the commissioner of community services and recreation.

The Food Project, an urban farm in Boston that tries to hire a balance of urban and suburban teens, interviewed twice as many city youth for positions this summer as it did suburban teens. One year it had 300 urban teens for 37 spots, said spokeswoman Jen James.

One of the hurdles for teens is competition from older and more qualified workers. Clients of Covenant House, a youth social services agency in New York, are competing for fast-food jobs against people who’ve been to college.

"It’s a buyer’s market," said Bruce Henry, the agency’s director. "People are demanding higher levels."

Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee worked as a paperboy and as a ballpark usher during summers when he was a teen. When he talks about his city’s summer jobs program, two stories haunt him.

A day and a half after the mayor met with a group of kids taking part in the program, one of them was murdered.

Another time, a TV reporter asked a boy he had interviewed about a summer job whether his family would watch the newscast. The boy demurred — he was homeless.

"For some of the kids, it’s a pretty fragile existence," Barrett said. "Anything we can do to break out of a cycle of poverty or hopelessness is something I’m very interested in doing."

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at jrobison@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4512. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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