It used to be that parents would tell their children to finish high school so they could get good jobs, but in Howard County these days it's enough just to be in high school.
"It seems there's a low unemployment rate among kids at my school," said Bernie Gabin, a sophomore at Howard High School and one of four unemployed students in his 11-member French class.
With the unemployment rate in Howard County at 1.4 percent in March, employers are finding the once-brimming pool of teen-age job applicants is drying up, and teens have more choices when it comes to after-school and summer jobs.
"We can't even hire teen-agers is the problem," said Mike Barrows, director of operations for CR Restaurant Inc., a Burger King franchisee. "People that offer entry-level jobs are struggling for what's left in the unemployment pool."
At a teen job fair this month in Columbia where five Burger King employees came to lure potential workers, only two teen-agers stopped by the fast-food restaurant's table in two hours, Barrows said.
Last year, Burger King hired 15 people from the job fair, he said.
Sherwin-Williams Co., which has about 15 paint stores in the Baltimore area, including one in Howard County, also attended the teen job fair. It was the company's first time at a recruiting event for that age group.
The paint business, usually busier in the summer when most people are adding new colors to their homes, lends itself to school-aged workers because of their schedules, said Brook Nienstedt, district manager for Sherwin-Williams.
Nienstedt estimated that 10 to 15 percent of the company's 85 workers in the region are teens.
Sherwin-Williams, which has a minimum age requirement of 17 for employees, typically seeks workers at college and junior college job fairs, but the low unemployment rate in Howard County is driving it down a notch."The economy, in Howard County especially, is forcing us to get more creative and more proactive," Nienstedtsaid.
Twenty-four employers, including Sherwin-Williams, were at the Howard County teen job fair, said Cheryl Queen, marketing coordinator with Howard County Employment and Training, an agency that helps companies find workers and the host of the teen job fair.
Queen said 136 teens were at the job fair and probably more job openings."There are so many openings in Howard County that are going unfilled, we had to tap into the teen market a bit harder," she said. "And we just had to be a bit more creative to assist Howard County companies with their recruiting efforts."
But Howard County Employment and Training isn't the only ones getting creative.
Take Kentucky Fried Chicken.
In April, KFC pushed its minimum age requirement for employees down from 16 to 15 in an effort to hire a few teen-agers ahead of the competition."We're all fighting over the same dwindling supply of teenagers," said Scott Carr, area coach for Kentucky Fried Chicken.
At Bertucci's, Howard County's low unemployment rate is driving the age of employees into a range much younger than the restaurant had hoped."We would like to get into the 18-plus range," said Jon Renfrow, a manager at the Columbia restaurant. "The available pool is more in the 15 and up range for this particular area."
And these days, employers are seeking potential employees instead of the other way around.
Bill Danos, owner of the Einstein Bros. Bagels store at Chatham Station, said potential employees used to drop by the shop asking for jobs, and now it's rare that a someone walks through the door seeking employment.
This month, Danos sought employees at two job fairs in one week, one of them his first teen job fair. "If I walk away with one employee, it's worth my time," he said.
In the past, weekend and evening shifts were easy for Danos to fill with after-school workers. Now, even those shifts are tight, in part because the store is in an affluent area where some teens may not need to work, Danos said.
But Danos said it's also happening because teens who in the past worked for $5 or $7 an hour can earn more.
Said Queen: "There are so many companies in need to fill different positions that the teens can virtually pick and choose."
Sarah Casper, 18, is looking for a job that she can work around her schedule. The Hammond High senior said she wants to work during the day and earn more than $6 an hour.
Gabin, the sophomore at Howard High, said he went to the teen job fair to check out his options.
He'd like to be a physicist or an engineer. But for now, he'll settle for a position at CompUSA or as a gofer at Lockheed Martin Corp. If that doesn't work out, he figures he could fall back on the fast-food business.
"People seem to be getting jobs rather easily," Gabin said.
He's right, especially if the teen job fair is any indication. There, Doug Mullikan, 16, and his friend, Meghan Ford, 15, sat at desks filling out applications. "I already got an interview tomorrow," Mullikan said. "We both did."