They flip burgers and watch over swimmers at local pools. But the wave of teen-agers seeking to join Howard County's work force this summer faces a mixed employment picture, with clouds already looming for next summer.
"I think it'll be tight," said Margaret H. Gerety, director of membership for the 1,100-member Howard County Chamber of Commerce. "There's just not a whole lot of hiring going on in general. Businesses are very cautious because of recent downturns."
Richard W. Story, executive director of the Howard County PTC Economic Development Authority, agreed, saying, "Depending on where they are looking and what they are looking for, the opportunities are mixed. They are either good or not so good."
The chancy job market for teen-agers reflects local economic conditions in general. Mr. Story noted that large local employers, such as the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory near Laurel, already have cut back on permanent staffing and aren't hiring as many summer workers.
But if young people are serious about finding work, they should be able to find something, he said.
There are more than a few bright spots for the nearly 8,772 youngsters between the ages of 16 and 19 who form the backbone of the traditional summer teen-age work force in the county.
For one thing, Howard's overall unemployment rate -- 3.2 percent as of April -- is one of the state's lowest. The unemployment rate for county teen-agers wasn't available.
Teen-agers are ideally positioned to take advantage of short-term, often low-wage service and retail jobs, local employers said.
"Our office in Howard County is on the lookout for every available student who wants to work this summer," said Jan Robert Chan
donnet, a senior area manager for mid-Maryland Manpower Inc., a temporary employment agency that plans to offer 400 to 500 jobs in Howard this summer.
And the Columbia Association and county government are doing their part.
The CA has hired about 200 lifeguards at its 23 outdoor pools, and 70 camp counselors, said Pamela J. Mack, vice president of community relations. The jobs pay at least minimum wage throughout the summer. Although those positions are filled, teen-agers still can apply for a few open space maintenance slots, she said.
The county's Bureau of Recreation and Parks has hired several hundred youngsters in part-time and full-time slots in summer camp and recreational programs. All those positions have been filled.
But county officials are braced for tightening in the youth job market next summer if Congress passes a Republican plan to kill a nationwide summer jobs program that this year will employ about 95 young people in Howard and 6,000 statewide.
Caught in a budget battle between the White House and Congress, the 30-year-old program provides six-week, $5-an-hour jobs in office, custodial and other positions in the county, said Bryan Rawlings, the program's former local coordinator. He left recently to take another position and has not been replaced.
Youngsters rely on their paychecks to help their parents pay for clothes and summer school, Mr. Rawlings said. Although short-term, the jobs have long-term benefits that would be lost if the program is killed, he said.
"They are learning skills that at some point down the road will be able to land them a job," Mr. Rawlings said.
The county's economic outlook for youths mirrors the national forecast. This year, more than 9 million young people ages 16 to 19 will enter the work force, up from about 8 million last year, said John F. Stinson Jr., a labor economist with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The greatest opportunities will come in retail, recreation and service jobs.
At the McDonald's in Columbia's Harper's Choice village, for example, 14- to 17-year-olds make up 80 percent of the restaurant's work force year-round, said Manager Jeff Lenz.
There are a few places in the county where teen-agers who are looking for work can find referrals.
At the Columbia Teen Center in the Village of Oakland Mills, young people can use a "job bank" book to find summer jobs, said Director Rene Buckmon. She said most of the opportunities are for older teen-agers.
"We're finding the hiring age definitely isn't 14; it's 16 or older," she said. "We get a lot of 14-year-olds who feel pretty much out of luck." The 14-year-olds are advised to volunteer.
Samuel Leishure, a guidance counselor at the 1,200-student Centennial High School, said his office posts openings for jobs at Merriweather Post Pavilion and other businesses on a bulletin board during the school year.
The ideal is for young people to find summer jobs that are related to their career plans, Mr. Stinson said. And in some cases, businesses hire older college students for summer positions, which can lead to permanent jobs.
Whatever jobs youths get, however, summer employment "builds character," said Mr. Chandonnet of Manpower.
"It exposes them to different kinds of people," he said. "It gives them exposure that is necessary to grow up. It gives them money. It gives you the experience of knowing what the work force is like."
And employers like the infusion of young workers in the summer because of "all that teen-age energy," said Ms. Mack of the Columbia Association, which depends heavily on young workers for its seasonal jobs.
Among them is Janine Dauberman, 16, of Highland, a lifeguard at the Stevens Forest community pool in Oakland Mills. Last summer, she worked at a cafe in Clarksville. This year, she wanted an outdoor job and applied for the lifeguard position.
"I love it. I look forward to coming to work," said Janine, who will be a senior at Atholton High School in the fall. The job's only shortcoming, she said, is cleaning the bathroom.
Wearing sunglasses and a white T-shirt over a red swimsuit, she sat in the high lifeguard's chair on a recent afternoon, scanning the pool. Occasionally, she blew her whistle at mischievous swimmers.
The aspiring teacher said being a lifeguard is related to her future career: She's learning how to work and communicate with children.
"Sometimes the teen-age boys don't really want to listen to you," she said. "If you're firm, they listen."
For further information about summer jobs, call Chick Rhodehamel at the Columbia Association, 381-0288, or the Columbia Teen Center at 992-3726.