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msnbc.com
updated 6/3/2005 3:00:07 PM ET 2005-06-03T19:00:07

Like most things in life, finding a summer job is a bit more complicated than it used to be.

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No longer is it a simple matter of walking into the neighborhood drug store and asking the pharmacist if he needs some help in the stock room. If the store has not been run out of business entirely by a nearby supercenter, it probably is owned by a national chain that may only accept applications at central headquarters. And the company may not want to bother with inexperienced teenagers looking for short-term employment.

For teens, the competition can be fierce. In the aftermath of the dot-com bust, millions of older workers have come out of retirement or simply stayed in the work force. In many states immigrants are a huge factor in seeking entry-level jobs that might have gone to teens in the past. And slow job growth since the recession ended in 2001 has forced many college graduates to take temporary jobs at retail stores, restaurants and call centers.

While the economy has added more than 3 million jobs over the past 18 months, teens are likely to have a tough time finding work this summer, experts say.

“Teens are having a much harder time getting work,” said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. “Not just in summer but year-round. … That is partly a new phenomenon. There is something structural going on in the labor market that has made it a lot harder for kids to find work.”

Younger workers always suffer first when the job market turns south in a recession, and the latest business cycle was no exception. But after past recessions, in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, teen employment snapped back quickly. Not so this time, said Sum.

Only about 41 percent of young people aged 16-19 worked last summer, down from 52 percent at the height of the economic expansion in 2000, Sum said. And based on employment figures from the first four months of this year, Sum expects little improvement this summer.

“The developments of the last two years are surprising,” he said. “We have had job growth for 20 months, and teens have gotten zero percent of that job growth.”

Summer jobs still exist, of course, especially at seasonal businesses like theme parks, golf clubs and landscapers. And they are well worth seeking out, say employment experts who say summer employment remains a good way to ease students into the work force.

“Getting a summer job is a good way to learn discipline – to get up on time and to meet expectations of someone other than your parents or teacher. It’s very valuable,” said John Challenger, chief executive officer of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

And plenty of teens want to work, said Renee Ward, founder of Teens4Hire.org, a Web site that matches young job-seekers with employers looking to hire them.  She said 80 percent of kids 14 and 15 years old express a desire to work, although many employers are leery of hiring children that young because of laws that restrict their hours and what they can do. Sum estimated there are some 3.5 million older teens — or 20 percent of the total — who want to work or want to work more than they do.

In addition to the increased competition for jobs, there are other reasons teens are working less than they used to. Challenger points out that nearly 38 percent of older teens were attending school last summer, compared with only 19 percent a decade earlier. Summer-school students are less likely to seek employment than teens who are free for the summer.

One myth that several experts sought to dispel is that teens are not seeking work because they don’t need money in an increasingly affluent society. In fact, teens from affluent families are far more likely to find work than children from poor families who lack the ready network of families and friends with good job connections.

Nearly 50 percent of teens from households with income over $100,000 worked last summer, compared with only 38 percent from lower-income households making $20,000 to $40,000, according to the Center for Labor Market Studies. The odds also are stacked against minority teen workers.

The outlook for teen employment also varies widely by region. In California, for example, only 31 percent of teens worked last summer, compared with more than 70 percent in Nebraska and South Dakota.

While work is an excellent way for teens to learn new skills and stay motivated to continue their education, hiring young people also has surprising benefits for companies.

Steve Pogorzelski, president of Monster North America, points out that teens are a major consumer group for many companies, so hiring teens can help build consumer loyalty.

“I think savvy employers realize there are certain benefits to hiring teens and establishing a steady pipeline of teen workers, especially during he summer months,” he said. “Each job applicant is a potential consumer, so companies have the opportunity to leave a positive impression.”

For teens seeking work, Pogorzelski advises doing the same thing any experienced worker would: Research, network and market.

“Think of yourself as your own personal brand with unique attributes and skills, and be prepared to articulate that,” he said.

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