Duane Hoffmann / msnbc.com
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/14/2009 5:07:08 PM ET 2009-06-14T21:07:08

With the economy in the dumps this past year, you’d think the nation’s teens would be falling all over themselves to get jobs this summer. Well, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics' most recent data shows a continued decline in the number of teens participating in the job market. In April, 38.1 percent of teens ages 16 to 19 were in the labor force, down from 41 percent in the same month last year.

“Over the year, the number of teens not in the labor force rose from 10,063,000 to 10,575,000,” says labor department analyst James Walker.

So is it just lazy teens coddled by their parents who, despite a recession, still won’t get off their butts and go out and do an honest day's work?

There may be some of that. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Some are bypassing paying jobs to volunteer. Others are starting their own businesses. And still others are creating their own work arrangements, such as babysitting for family members.

There seems to be more to life than a minimum-wage job at a mall or resort.

Ask your career questionsTake Kira Goldsmith, 15, of Ossining, N.Y. She figured there would be many adults desperate for work this summer, so she decided to not even bother applying for a paying job. But that doesn’t mean she won’t be working.

She’ll be volunteering in July at the Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, N.Y., where she’ll be cleaning barns and feeding animals. She also has plans to volunteer at an animal shelter and a center for disadvantaged kids.

“I looked in the Penny Saver for jobs, but I thought there are people who needed jobs more than me,” she says. “I thought volunteering is more worthwhile than getting paid for something.”

Work alternatives
Tyler Paaverud, 18, also won’t show up in workforce participation numbers.

Paaverud, who lives in Shakopee, Minn., started his own landscaping business last summer called Valley Yard Services because he didn’t want to work a minimum wage job like many of his friends. He estimates he now makes about $22 an hour. He also employs his twin 17-year-old sisters and some of his buddies.

“My sisters and I were in the same boat,” he says. “We didn’t go out and look for a job because of how much work you have to do only to get a few dollar bills at the end of the day.”

It’s not surprising that teens are looking to a variety of work alternatives given how they’re typically treated by employers, says Harry Holzer, a professor at Georgetown University and former economist for the Department of Labor.

“Young people are the most marginal workers in the labor force, the first to be let go and the last to be hired,” he says. “If they think the odds aren’t good for getting a job, they may not try. Upper-income kids may think enrichment opportunities, where low-income teens may just get discouraged and not bother at all.”

For teens, venturing out to find a job right now may be daunting. The jobless rate among the 16-to-19 crowd jumped to 21.5 percent in April, up from 15.4 percent in April 2008.

Simone Thompson, director of operations at Covenant House New York, which helps homeless youth gain independence and employment, says it is taking teens four months or so to find jobs right now, where it used to take less than a month. “The kids want to work, but they’re having trouble finding work,” she says. “Our major issue is they are not getting full-time employment or are seeing their hours cut back.”

The difficulties in finding work reach across all income levels.

Lindsay Gumma, a 17-year-old from a middle-class family in Barrington Hills, Ill., has been looking for a summer job for months with little luck. She tried a local day care, a smoothie shop, and even a Starbucks, but came up with nothing.

“It’s tough now,” she says. “One of my friends worked at a chocolate shop, but they closed it down, so she’s out of a job. And my boyfriend doesn’t have a job and can’t find one, and he just graduated.”

Gumma told her sister, Tina Brandts, about the difficulty she was having, and Brandts came up with a suggestion.

“I offered her the opportunity to take care of my 9- and 7-year-olds during the summer while I work,” she says. “It will save me $800 per month by not having to put them in summer camps, and she will earn $250 per week, which isn't bad pay for sitting at the pool and playing at the park.”

The arrangement is working out for all involved.

“It’s nice to be with my niece and nephew, and I’m helping my sister,” Gumma says.

These type of private arrangements will typically not end up in any job-market statistics.

One thing's for certain: The decline in the number of young people in the job market is not just a function of the recent downturn. The labor force participation rate among teens has been declining since the 1970s. Some economists point to a growing desire among parents to have their children concentrate on school work and enrichment activities instead of a minimum-wage job as a big reason for the decline.

Jeremy Roy, the owner of 11 Great American Cookies franchises and one Pretzelmaker store in Texas, believes this is the reason he doesn’t have a large number of high-caliber teens to choose from even during a recession. “Those teens typically come from families that have money that don’t allow them to work,” he says. “They do extracurricular or volunteer work.”

Fierce competition
But keeping teens out of the labor force may not be the best idea.

Jeylan T. Mortimer, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, has followed high school students into their 20s and found that working during the teen years helped kids learn about time management and develop better interpersonal skills. Those who worked ended up with the highest levels of educational attainment.

For teens looking for a traditional job this summer, the competition will be fierce. However, there are some recent hopeful signs, says Shawn Boyer, CEO of SnagAJob.com. In the last two months, he says, jobs postings from employers are up 13 percent on his job site.

Despite a few bright spots, teens will still have to find ways to set themselves apart. “The most important characteristic is not experience, but a positive attitude and flexibility in your schedule,” he says.

Teens should make sure everything is grammatically correct when filling out an application and should list all experience, even extracurricular activities or leadership positions held.

Also, don’t show up in packs, says cookie franchise owner Roy. He recommends that teens come to fill out an application by themselves, dressed in clean, neat and appropriate attire.

“One thing I require from our applicants is that they have an ink pen,” he says. “If they don’t have a pen, then they’re not prepared.”

It’s also important, even for teens, to work their contacts. That includes family and friends.

Natalie Geisler, 16, from Bethesda, Md., got a gig this summer as a camp counselor for a sports day camp called KidBall.

“I got the job because I built up a relationship with them,” she says. “My parents know the people that run it, and they got to know me.”

Geisler will be working for $10 an hour, and she’s happy to have the cash.

“I like clothing and shoes,” she says. “I like it to the point where my parents say, ‘If you want it, you have to buy it yourself.’”

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

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