The New York Times – May 25, 2008
Toughest Summer Job This Year Is Finding One
By PETER S. GOODMAN
TULSA, Okla. — School is out, and Aaron Stallings, his junior year of high school behind him, wanders the air-conditioned cocoon of the Woodland Hills Mall in search of a job.
Mr. Stallings, 18, says he has been looking for three months, burning gasoline to get to the mall, then filling out applications at stores selling skateboard T-shirts, beach sandals and baseball caps. He likes the idea of working amid the goods he covets. But so far, no offers.
“I’m going to go to Iraq and get a job,” he says acidly. “I hear they’ve got cheap gas.” He grins. “I’m just playing. But I’ve been all over, and nobody’s hiring. They just say, ‘We’ll call you tomorrow.’ And no one ever calls back.”
As the forces of economic downturn ripple widely across the United States, the job market of 2008 is shaping up as the weakest in more than half a century for teenagers looking for summer work, according to labor economists, government data and companies that hire young people.
This deterioration is jeopardizing what many experts consider a crucial beginning stage of working life, one that gives young people experience and confidence along with pocket money.
Little more than one-third of the 16- to 19-year-olds in the United States are likely to be employed this summer, the smallest share since the government began tracking teenage work in 1948, according to a research paper published by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. That is a sharp drop from the 45 percent level of teenage employment reached in 2000.
The rates among minority young people have been particularly low, with only 21 percent of African-Americans and 31 percent of Hispanics from the ages of 16 to 19 employed last summer, according to the Labor Department.
Retailers, a major source of summer jobs, are grappling with a loss of American spending power, causing some to pull back in hiring. Restaurants, also big employers of teenagers, are adding jobs at a slower pace than in previous summers, said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president for research at the National Restaurant Association in Washington.
As older people stay in the work force longer and as experienced workers lose jobs at factories and offices, settling for lower-paying work in restaurants and retail, some teenagers are being squeezed out.
“When you go into a recession, kids always get hit the hardest,” said Andrew Sum, an economist at the Center for Labor Market Studies who led the study on the summer job market. “Kids always go to the back of the hiring queue. Now, they find themselves with a lot of other people in line ahead of them.”
At the lower end of the market, adult Mexican immigrants, in particular, pose competition for jobs traditionally filled by younger Americans, like those at fast food chains.
“Spanish-speaking team members in our stores have increased the age a little bit,” said Andy Lorenzen, senior manager for human resources at Chick-fil-A, a national chain of chicken restaurants based in Atlanta, where 70 percent of the work force is 14 to 19 years old. Adult workers “have lost jobs in this economic downturn and begun to seek employment in our stores.”
Employment among American teenagers has been sliding continuously for the last decade and, with a few ups and downs, dropping steadily since the late 1970s, when nearly half of all 16- to 19-year-olds had summer jobs.
Economists debate the cause of this precipitous decline in teenage employment. Many contend that the drop is largely a favorable trend, reflecting a rising percentage of teenagers completing high school and going on to college, with some enrolling in summer academic programs, leaving less time for work.
“The key factor is the attraction of attending college and enjoying the increasing wage premium that accompanies this,” said John H. Pencavel, a labor economist at Stanford University.
In wealthier households, many have come to see summer work as a waste of time that could be spent gaining an edge in the competition for entry to elite colleges.
“Kids from higher-income households just aren’t going into the labor market,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Economy.com. “They’re looking for things to put on résumés, and working at Dairy Queen or Wal-Mart just isn’t going to help you get into Wake Forest or Stanford. And they just don’t need the cash.”
But others, like Professor Sum, contend that plenty of teenagers want to work but face increasing difficulties landing jobs. From early 2001 to the middle of 2007, the number of Americans employed outside the military grew more than 8.3 million, according to the Labor Department, yet employment among teenagers fell more than 1.2 million.
In the New York metropolitan area, an index by Economy.com shows a modest increase in the sorts of jobs typically filled by teenagers in the summer.
Still, with the economy gripped by what many experts believe is a recession, opportunities are growing leaner for teenagers in most of the country.
Even in parts of the country where there are jobs, some teenagers are having trouble finding them.
Tulsa, a town on the banks of the Arkansas River that swelled into a city amid an oil boom early last century, seems at first an easy place to find work. This metropolitan area of 900,000 people never saw the increase in housing prices and subsequent collapse that leveled economies elsewhere. While energy prices are reaching records and the oil patch is buzzing with activity, Tulsa’s unemployment rate was a mere 3.3 percent in March, compared with the national rate of 5.1 percent that month.
Here, the force of Hispanic immigration is being reversed: A bill aimed at cracking down on illegal immigrants passed by the state legislature late last year has prompted thousands of them to leave town.
So along the broad suburban avenues in the southern part of town — ribbons of black pavement lined with ice cream shops, burger stands and barbecue joints — managers are having a hard time finding workers.
“Pretty much everybody is hiring,” said Andy Irick, director of operations for Sonic, a restaurant chain based in Oklahoma, complete with blaring music and servers on roller skates. “If you walk in and you’re clean cut and presentable, you’re going to get a job.”
While summer jobs may be abundant in some industries, opportunities tend to divide along traditional fault lines like race, the connections offered by one’s parents and — not least — whether one has a car in this sprawling city of scant public transportation.
More than 15 percent of the city’s population is African-American, according to the 2000 census. Black people are largely clustered in the older, northern part of town, on weather-beaten roads largely devoid of shopping and places to work. The suburban strip malls to the south are miles away.
At a state-financed program that helps lower-income young people find jobs, Arbor Education and Training, some have quit coming to the center because gas prices are too high, and some have lost jobs because they could not get to work, said the program’s director of operations, Jacky Noden.
Meanwhile, at a job skills class at Booker T. Washington High School, considered Tulsa’s most prestigious public campus, six graduating seniors, all bound for college and all possessing cars, already had jobs for the summer.
Greg Robinson, 18, cast his job as an instructor at a golf course as a perfect chance to network. “Golf is the sport of business.”
Shakhura Henderson, 18, saw her job as an assistant in an optometrist’s office as a beachhead in a growing area of the American economy. She and the other students stammered in veritable horror when asked if they would consider working in fast food.
“I don’t see myself saying, ‘Hey, sir, may I take your order,’ ” Ms. Henderson said. “I don’t see any growth in it.”
Claire Tolson, 17, a student at another selective school, Thomas A. Edison Preparatory, said she planned to spend the summer as a hostess at the Local Table, a restaurant specializing in produce from around the area, earning $8 an hour, plus tips.
Tall, blond and poised, and looking ahead to a career in engineering, Ms. Tolson has two friends working at the restaurant already. One of their parents knows the owner, she said.
“I don’t think it’s too hard to find a job,” she said.
But Ms. Tolson’s classmate, Wesley Childers, has no such connections, relying instead on newspaper classified advertisements for his job search. He wants a job so he can save money to buy a car next year, but his lack of a vehicle presents something of a Catch-22.
“Employers want you to have reliable transportation,” he said.
Mr. Childers wears a pressed blue suit and shiny black loafers to job interviews. He has applied to McDonald’s and to Target, the discount department store, among other places.
“I haven’t heard anything back,” he said. “There’s so many other kids, and there’s also so many other people who are unemployed. It’s getting frustrating.”
At Will Rogers High School in a heavily Hispanic part of town, a 15-year-old sophomore named José, who has lived here since he was 2 years old but lacks legal immigration papers, worried that he would not find a job. He would happily work in fast food, he said, but word is that more places are checking papers.
“It limits your choices,” he said. “A lot of people are afraid.”