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Nicklaus: Terrible job market will have long-term consequences for teens

Nicklaus: Terrible job market will have long-term consequences for teens

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Eliza Copilevitz planned to spend this summer as a camp counselor in Michigan. Instead, she’s at her parents’ house in Clayton scrambling to find alternative employment.

She has plenty of company. The COVID-19 pandemic has shut down a lot of the camps, swimming pools and entertainment venues that traditionally employ young people in the summer. Restaurants and stores are operating at reduced capacity, so they need fewer teenage waiters and clerks.

“If you ask me what’s the outlook for teen summer employment, I think it’s terrible,” said Paul Harrington, director of Drexel University’s Center for Labor Markets and Policy.

Young people, Harrington points out, are often the first workers let go in a downturn. That became clear in April, when nationwide teen employment fell by 1.6 million. The percentage of 16- to 19-year-olds with jobs fell to 21%, an all-time low.

A slight rebound in May brought that figure up to 24%, but it’s still well below pre-pandemic levels. “Kids got crushed this spring,” Harrington said.

Copilevitz, who just finished her freshman year at the University of Denver, still hopes to earn money this summer. She applied at an ice cream parlor and has talked to some families about working as a nanny or babysitter, but even there the pandemic may be a hindrance. “They have to figure out whether it’s appropriate to bring someone else into the household,” she said.

By working last summer, Copilevitz saved enough to cover a year’s worth of incidental expenses, including club soccer and sorority fees. “I was hoping to do the same this year, but right now I’m not sure that’s going to be the case,” she said.

In addition to the wages, a summer job provides valuable lessons about being on time, working with teammates and dealing with customers. Studies show that people who work as teenagers go on to earn more and have more stable career paths as adults.

“You learn what the world of work requires,” Harrington said. “This downturn will have long-term consequences in terms of lower lifetime earnings.”

The STL Youth Jobs program, which provides that early work experience for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, has also been hurt by the pandemic.

Executive Director Hillary Frey said the organization will be able to serve only 550 young people this summer, down from 800 last year. Donations were down, and some companies weren’t ready to bring in young interns while they are operating remotely.

All of the youths will receive stipends of $750 to $900 if they complete an online job-training program. About 50 of them will have remote internships with companies, and 75 others may have hands-on positions if institutions such as day camps are allowed to open. Each participant will have a job coach, but at best it’s going to be a scaled-down experience this summer.

“This is definitely not the trajectory we had hoped to be on,” Frey said, “but we want to be able to provide as much access this summer as possible.”

A few big employers of teens are still hiring. Six Flags, which is scheduled to open June 22, will hire between 2,500 and 3,000 seasonal workers, a similar number compared to past years. About 800 jobs are still open, and the park is offering bonuses for lifeguard positions at Hurricane Harbor.

Teen unemployment, though, stands at a record high of nearly 30%. A lot of young people, unfortunately, won’t get the job experience they want and need this summer.

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