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What Summer Job? Kids Would Rather Get a Foot in the Door at a Big Company

Summer jobs are in decline, partly because today's kids prefer a foot in the door than a hand on a lawnmower.
A sign hangs on a lamp post in Somerville
REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo

Good news, kids! Far more companies are hiring seasonal staff this year than last, with new research from CareerBuilder showing that 41 percent of employers plan to hire summer workers, up from 29 percent in 2016. So, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find a job and help pay down that looming college debt or give back to your folks. But wait — that’s not quite how things work anymore. The summer job, once an obligation, is now merely an option among a few possible routes.

"The summer job is disappearing, and has been over the last 30 years,” said Marc Prosser, co-founder and publisher of An analysis from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that as of July 2016, the teen labor force participation rate was 43.2 percent, down nearly 30 percentage points from its peak of 71.8 percent in July 1978.

There are a number of factors contributing to this decline, but most prominent among them is the increasing popularity of internships.

“Many more students are seeking out internships or research opportunities over the summer now, as opposed to when I first started counseling students [nearly 20 years ago]," said Dr. Kat Cohen, CEO and founder of IvyWise, an admissions counseling services company. “Everything is more competitive these days, so getting hands-on work experience or hands-on research experience, and making contacts at companies that students might want to work at post-graduation can be a smart move.”

An Internship with a Gig on the Side

It’s becoming more common for college students to balance unpaid internships with a paying side gig for a company like Uber or Instacart.

“While big cities typically provide more internship opportunities, many on-demand jobs are now available on college campuses as well as big cities,” said Brandon Yahn, founder of Student Loans Guy. “This allows students to take research jobs on campus as internships while still making money.”

Another popular summer side gig? Dog walking.

“We see a surge in dog walker applications from college students and even school teachers who find themselves with an abundance of time for the summer months,” said Dave Comiskey, co-founder of Barkly Pets. “The job provides time outside, rewarding time spent with adorable pets, and offers more freedom and flexibility than other summer jobs may.”

And the pay is impressive: an average of $18 per half-hour walk.

But more than good pay, it appears young people want good hours. Or, more specifically: the ability to choose them on a whim.

Related: Seven Ways Millennials Are Changing the Workplace for the Better

"Flexibility in shifts and schedules is super attractive to this [younger] workforce," said Peter Harrison, CEO of the job search engine website Snagajob. “Whole Foods is losing money to Instacart — which pays less and provides fewer benefits and security — all because the workers prize that flexibility.”

Some employers feel that teenagers are turning their nose up at their recruiting efforts, opting instead for something easier, even if it pays less.

Jared Beckstead, marketing coordinator for Bailey's Moving and Storage, says that his company is desperate for workers during the summer — the business’ busiest time of year — and is keen on hiring teens and college kids. Unfortunately, it’s “almost impossible to find students willing to do the work,” Beckstead told NBC News.

“I would argue that the need for summer help at many businesses is alive and well; the disappearing act has been the work ethic of today’s youth,” Beckstead said, adding that teenage job candidates typically are "willing to work for less money and fewer hours just because the job is easier."

Snagajob’s Harrison says he hears this sentiment loud and clear from a variety of companies.

“All of our companies who do seasonal hires, especially in places like Martha's Vineyard, are having a fantastically hard time filling jobs,” Harrison said.

The Time-Honored Value of a Traditional Job

Many teens have the luxury of chasing the dream internship, even if it doesn’t pay — or of hustling with an on-demand gig that gives them freedom. Others may choose to forego work altogether because, as Snagajob’s Harrison points out, “there is a growing acceptance of insane student debt as part of the college process — a restaurant job can only chip away at the edges of it.”

But what about the families who need paychecks coming in from all eligible members? Or the parents of teens living at home who simply want their kid to take whatever job she can get if only to learn the importance of good work ethic?

"​Most parents realize that by coddling their kids and not exposing them to responsibility, both financial and otherwise, they are doing their kids a disservice," said Allison Farber Cheston, career expert and job search coach. "Employers have no patience for young employees who focus most on what the organization can do for them. I spend a lot of time with millennials explaining the importance of humility and hard work.​"

It’s crucial to note that while the summer job isn’t what it used to be, it absolutely still exists and can be just as valuable as an internship down the road.

Related: Five Millennial Jobs that Parents Will Never Understand

"There are a couple of fields where teens can get paid from the start and will acquire good carryover skills for real jobs,” said Cheston. “Those are sales and customer service: Both of those functions will take them out of their comfort zone and teach them how money is made or how to deal with difficult people — excellent skills for real life and work.”

Another classic summer job that can teach valuable skills? Camp counseling. Some programs now combine pay and college credits.

"A college-aged person can work on accounting and payroll at a camp while earning college credits and getting paid,” said Susie Lupert, executive director of the American Camp Association of NY and NJ, adding that it may not be too late to find such a job in your area. “There are always a few last-minute dropouts or staff members who weren’t the right fit, so hires do occur at this time of year for a few positions.”

The Right Summer Job Could Land You a Scholarship

Not only can more traditional jobs impress hiring managers or admissions counselors in the future, some are affiliated with scholarship programs.

The Chick Evans Scholarship, for instance, has provided full college scholarships to over 11,000 high schoolers who’ve worked as golf caddies in the U.S and Canada.

"Currently, 935 Evans Scholars are enrolled at 20 universities, and more than 10,400 young men and women have graduated as Evans Scholars,” said John Kaczkowski, president and CEO of the Western Golf Association and Evans Scholars Foundation. “This year, 270 students from across the country and Canada were awarded the Evans Scholarship [which comprises] a full, four-year housing and tuition scholarship for teens.”

One of the requirements to qualify the scholarship? “Outstanding character.” And we all know what best builds that. Why, hard work, of course.