Why Summer Jobs Are Getting Harder to Find

By: - April 29, 2010 12:00 am

Last summer, teenager Michael Gaulden and his family were hungry and living out of the family car when he landed a summer job as a janitor at a San Diego high school. With his first few paychecks, Michael did his laundry, bought food, made a deposit on an apartment and filled up his mother’s gas tank so she could get to work.

Now, Michael has a 20-hour-a-week job in communications at the local workforce agency that helped him find work last summer. His mother has a steady job as a security guard. In the fall, Michael plans to begin classes at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Michael and thousands of other disadvantaged young people across the country were among those in the summer of 2009 who benefited from federal stimulus dollars that rejuvenated languishing state and local youth jobs programs. This summer, few young people can expect the same kind of help.

Of the $1.2 billion in stimulus money distributed to state and local workforce agencies last year, the U.S. Labor Department estimates that more than 75 percent has been spent. Without more federal money, most states and cities will be unlikely to reestablish the training programs and subsidized jobs that put nearly 320,000 teens and young adults to work last summer doing administrative tasks in government agencies and hospitals, landscaping in state parks, maintenance in schools and other duties.

Michael, 17, says his friends tell him it’s already a lot tougher to line up work for this coming summer than it was last year. At fast food restaurants, for example, his friends have to compete with jobless adults who are overqualified. But that’s the reality of the job market when the national unemployment rate remains close to 10 percent.

A decade-long trend While the recession has certainly taken a toll on job opportunities for young people, the decline in the youth job market actually started nearly a decade ago.

 In the year 2000, nearly half of all Americans between the ages of 14 and 21 held jobs for at least part of the year. By 2009, even with the stimulus dollars flowing, fewer than one in three young people could find work. That was the lowest youth employment rate since the federal government started tracking the statistic in 1948.

For low-income teens, high school dropouts, teen parents and minors with a criminal record — the primary beneficiaries of government-subsidized jobs programs — the odds of finding work are even lower. Today, only one in ten black teenagers holds a part-time job. Teen employment has always lagged behind adult employment, particularly in times of job scarcity.

In the 1990s, the nation’s businesses added nearly 30 million new jobs. Since 2000, fewer than 8 million jobs have been created, the lowest employment growth in any decade since World War II. As a result, youth employment has plummeted, as older Americans, recent college graduates, and people in their twenties without a college degree increasingly have begun competing with teens for unskilled, low-wage jobs.

Long-term effects Although most jobless teens don’t have families to feed, they do need work experience — particularly those who are not bound for college.

Studies show that high unemployment among young people in urban areas contributes to increased crime and gang activity. And a shortage of work opportunities has been shown to have profound negative effects on adolescents’ lives.

For every year that teens work, their income in their twenties rises 14 to 16 percent, says employment expert Andrew Sum of Northeastern University. In addition, research shows that girls who have jobs are much less likely to become pregnant in their teens, while boys are less likely to get involved in property crimes and drug use.

High school graduation rates also go up for students with work experience. Congress is considering a bill that would provide $600 million to states and localities to continue last year’s youth job programs. But with new spending getting tough scrutiny on Capitol Hill, the emergency funding has little chance of passing anytime soon.

By now, it’s getting pretty late into springtime for state or local officials to put together a jobs program for this summer. Still, some states are trying to keep up at least some of the momentum they started last year.

For example, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick committed $4 million in state money to this year’s statewide summer jobs program. The state also has about $2 million in stimulus money left to work with. Administrators believe that will be enough to put 7,000 disadvantaged young people to work, compared to 12,000 last year.

Connecticut lawmakers are considering a budget that includes $3.5 million in funding for summer youth employment. Local workforce agencies intend to combine those funds with remaining stimulus money and private donations to serve nearly as many youths as they did last summer.

In Wisconsin, however, a successful program offered by the Bay Area Workforce Development Board won’t be repeated. Called “Work Certified,” the 2009 summer training program prepared high-risk young people between the ages of 17 and 24 to enter the workforce. Among a group of 221 who attended the program last year, 160 had prior criminal records, 70 were single parents and 40 were homeless.

Despite their individual challenges, program director James Golembeski says only 8 participants were unable to meet the course’s rigorous standards, including a tough final exam and only one allowed absence during the 7 hour-a-day, five-days-a-week, three-week course.

“It amazes me that these completely disenfranchised youths had the discipline to complete the program,” says Golembeski. On the last day, he says, the students gave their teacher a standing ovation. After completing the course, several landed full-time jobs, a few went on to complete high school equivalency exams and some enrolled in community college.

As for San Diego’s Hire-a-Youth program that Gaulden believes changed his life, it didn’t exist until the summer of 2009. With $7.7 million in federal stimulus money, the local workforce agency trained and employed 3,247 disadvantaged young people. This summer, program administrators are piecing together leftover stimulus money with other state and local funds to put about 1,400 to work.

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Christine Vestal

Christine Vestal covers mental health and drug addiction for Stateline. Previously, she covered health care for McGraw-Hill and the Financial Times.