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As economy changes, teen summer jobs become scarce

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Drop-in center offers teens relief from the streets

Jayvion Williams, 18, plays air hockey with staff member Tara Ervin at the drop-in center of Epworth Children and Family Services in Normandy on Thursday, June 26, 2014. The Sumner High graduate, who has temporary shelter at a teen home, works a job at Rally's and hopes to enter Forest Park Community College in the fall to study construction. "I've got a plan," said Williams. "I've just got to make it happen." Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

Whether it was at a beach or a burger joint, many of us were introduced to the working world through a teenage summer job.

For a variety of reasons, that experience is rarer than it used to be. Throughout the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, more than half of 16- to 19-year-olds held jobs during the summer. Last summer, just one-third of them were working.

Before any of you old-timers launch into a rant about today’s youths, consider that the decline in employment has many causes, none of which are associated with laziness. Young people are pursuing more education, and even in the summer they feel pressure to engage in résumé-building volunteer work and enrichment experiences.

Meanwhile, the job market itself has changed. Factories that once hired unskilled teens as vacation fill-ins have closed, or they’ve become so automated that they no longer need the extra hands. Older workers have taken many of the fast-food and retail jobs that once went to teenagers.

In short, teens from well-off families have less time for a job, and teens who are less well-off have trouble finding work.

Andy Challenger, a vice president at Chicago job-placement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas, thinks teen employment will be slightly higher this summer than last. That represents a stronger job market overall, which he says is “opening the teenage job back up to teenagers. They’ll be back to competing with their peers rather than competing with other people for those jobs.”

Still, no one thinks a cyclical rebound will take teen employment back above 50 percent, a level last seen in 2001. Challenger thinks the reasons for the long-term decline are more cultural than economic. Instead of trying to earn money, many teens will attend a science camp or volunteer at a soup kitchen in hopes that it will help them get into a good college.

Not all teens are college-bound, however, and many don’t set out to spend the summer volunteering. That simply becomes Plan B after they fail to find a job.

Nearly 18 percent of teenagers who want a job can’t find one. Among African-American teens, the unemployment rate is 30 percent.

Plenty of young people may see those numbers and decide job-hunting isn’t worth the trouble. Last summer, 32 percent of African-American teens and 36 percent of Hispanic teens were either working or looking for work, compared with 45 percent of whites.

A summer job is a valuable experience for any teen, but it can be especially important for youths from a disadvantaged background.

“A job is so important for not just the earnings, but also for getting experience and staying out of trouble,” says Bill Emmons, an economist at the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank. “There are many reasons to focus on youth employment.”

In St. Louis, the STL Youth Jobs project aims to place 2,500 low-income teens and young adults in jobs this summer, up from 400 last year. It’s funded with government grants and private contributions.

The entire metro area has about 46,000 teenage workers, according to Census estimates, so the concentrated addition of 2,100 jobs should be enough to make a difference.

Various studies have shown that gaining work experience early in life leads to higher lifetime earnings, so the young people who land those jobs should reap decades worth of dividends.

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David Nicklaus is a business columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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