Despite an abundance of "help wanted" signs on the fast-food restaurants and in shopping centers for service workers, students looking for a good summer job this year will find it tougher than ever.
"I can't find anything that pays real well, and you always have to have transportation to get there," said Bob Thompson as he cruised the lot of Padonia Village Shopping Center with friends one night last week. "Maybe I'll go to summer school, if something doesn't turn up," said the Dulaney Senior High School student.
In that Cockeysville shopping center, there was no shortage of service jobs. The sandwich shop, the dry cleaners, the drugstore all said they were hiring for part-time work. But the managers said they wanted reliable workers who would stay beyond the short summer and those who would work weekends and nights, which limited the response.
The jobs pay about $5 an hour, above the minimum wage of $4.25 but not necessarily enough to attract and retain teen-agers, who typically need a car to get to and from work.
"The opportunities have somewhat dried up this summer," said Robert Fanto, guidance counseling chairman at Dulaney High.
The school's "jobs available" bulletin board has about as many listings as last year, "but there is less diversity, fewer jobs that require some sort of skills or ability," Mr. Fanto said. There are lots of yard-work, baby-sitting and fast-food opportunities, but virtually no office or technical jobs employers. More students may skip a summer job to do other things this year, he observed.
The sluggish economy, reduced federal funding and employer caution are some of the reasons for the flagging job market for students.
The hourly minimum wage is 45 cents higher than last year, and the maximum federal fine for a child labor law violation has increased tenfold to $10,000. But they are not considered significant factors in the current Maryland youth employment picture.
"Realistically, all businesses are paying above the minimum wage in this area," said Thomas S. Saquella, president of the Maryland Retail Merchants Association. "If sales were as robust as they were two years ago, there'd be more summer hiring, regardless."
Student jobs considered attractive are quickly filled.
"There's been a much more abundant supply of labor than in past years," said Punkey Foard of Valley View Farms garden centers. The 125 to 150 students employed there this year began working part-time in April and will stay through the fall, he said.
"We're getting a much better part-time employee in the past five years than we did 10 or 15 years ago," he said. They are "much sharper and more responsible."
Ocean City continues to hold its own as the mecca of student job-seekers, who fill more than 10,000 positions in the summer resort businesses.
Even there, however, jobs are filling up sooner, and more youngsters are applying earlier, said Anne FauntLeroy of the city's Chamber of Commerce. A job fair in April drew more than 1,800 high school seniors and college students, compared with only 300 several years ago, she said.
"No one's been complaining loudly about a lack of people, not like last year," Ms. FauntLeroy said. To solve the perennial problem of early depar
tures by summer help, many employers now pay season-end bonuses, she said.
The decline in the work force is mirrored in the steady decline in the number of minors getting state work permits over the past four years. The Maryland Division of Labor and Industry issued almost 99,000 permits, required for workers who are 14 to 17 years old, in 1987. The total was 76,500 last year, and the $H number of permits issued in the first four months of 1991 lags behind the previous year.
Over time, work permits for minors typically follow economic cycles. In 1982, the state issued only 57,500 permits, but the numbers increased each succeeding year until they peaked in 1987.
The number of young workers also has declined. The U.S. Labor Department projects that 440,000 fewer people ages 16 to 24 will be in the summertime work force this year, compared with 1990. That age-group population has been falling since 1980, the department noted.
Businesses that have traditionally hired college student summer interns preparing for professions are also cutting back.
Several large law firms in Baltimore report that they have reduced the number of law student interns by as much as 50 percent this year. Piper & Marbury reduced its summer student corps from 36 to 18. The Sun's newspaper internship for college students was pruned from 12 to eight weeks this summer for economic reasons.
The defense contractor AAI Corp. has maintained summer hiring as a way to recruit top engineering, business and computer students. This summer, from seven to 10 students will get jobs, compared with nearly 75 collegians a few years ago, said David Bopst, personnel director. The defense contractor has reduced its permanent work force in recent years to meet contract cutbacks. "This is a lean year for us, and we're sizing down," Mr. Bopst said.
Westinghouse Electric Corp., a major defense industry employer, discontinued its summer student hiring program here two years ago as a result of reduced work.
Government-sponsored job programs also have fallen by the wayside or have been slashed.
The state's Maryland Summer Jobs program, launched four years ago with the claim of more than 23,000 pledges of private-business jobs for students, was soon dropped. The expanding economy in 1987 made the program unnecessary, since many youths found work rather easily back then, explained Curtis Kane of the Department of Economic and Employment Development.
Baltimore's Blue Chip-In project to link private employers with student job-seekers has been wrapped into the year-round Commonwealth Jobs program. Four years ago, it boasted 4,300 job pledges; this year, the city "hopes" for 500 genuine job offers from the private sector, said director Karen Sitnick.
"You can't compare the two figures, however, because they formerly used job 'pledges,' many of which did not pan out" when they were needed, Ms. Sitnick said. Too often, employers made the pledges without looking at actual employment needs or costs involved, she said.
Similarly, the number of federally funded summer jobs available for low-income city youths has shrunk over that time from nearly 4,000 to about 2,700, she said. Money from the Job Training Partnership Act that pays for this summertime program has been steadily reduced in recent years for all localities.
"Plus, the higher minimum wage we must pay has also cost us more jobs," Ms. Sitnick said.
In Anne Arundel County, the number of JTPA summer jobs was cut in half, to 125 this year from 250 in 1990. "We want to keep as many kids as we can employed, but it's getting tougher," said Pamela Neustadt, program director.
Because of the limited slots and strict financial requirements for the JTPA jobs, Ms. Neustadt tried to set up a job fair in May to link other students with private employers, but she had to cancel it. "I was really disappointed -- we contacted 400 employers, and only six of them responded with any interest," she said.
Baltimore County's government cut back plans for summer hires when departments were told that they would have to fund the student wages from existing budgets. Instead of 35 to 50 temporary slots expected in May, only 16 have materialized, said Carol Hirschburg, communications director. "I've called about 10 of the applicants to confirm so far and none of them has told me they were no longer available," she said.
The county's JTPA summer jobs program was slashed by one-third, from 600 to 400 slots this year, and has stopped taking applications.
"We already have more kids than jobs; the sign-up's been much higher than normal," said Gloria Sandstrom, program coordinator.
To stretch the shrinking federal money, the program has been reduced from eight to six weeks over the past two years, she said. As in other counties, youths are paid the minimum wage to work in public service or for non-profit groups.
Even qualifying for the JTPA summer work requires the student to prove financial need. A youth in a family of four whose income exceeds $15,000 a year would be ineligible, Ms. Sitnick said. Yet applications in Baltimore and all metropolitan counties have exceeded the number of slots available this summer.
Youngsters ages 14 and 15 face particular difficulties in finding summer work, with tougher enforcement of stricter laws regulating their hours and working conditions.
"Employers are definitely asking for older students" to avoid these problems, Ms. Sitnick said. "So, we're encouraging younger kids to do [unpaid] volunteer work to gain some experience and to learn about working responsibilities." The United Way is coordinating these demands for younger volunteers from non-profit groups, she said.