Tough life lesson might await job-seeking teens

The Baltimore Sun

FORT WORTH, Texas - From flipping burgers to watching over swimmers, the summer job has been a rite of passage for countless teens.

But this year, youngsters nationwide may have to hunt a bit harder to land their first paychecks.

Nationwide, the unemployment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds rose to 15.5 percent last month from 14.5 percent a year earlier. Meanwhile, the overall unemployment rate is 5.1 percent, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Headed for low?

Teenagers' employment has been falling since midsummer 2006, and it's expected to reach a historic low this summer, according to research by Northeastern University professor Andrew Sum. That's largely because kids are facing stiffer competition from older adults, single moms, college grads and new immigrants - all of whom are vying for jobs that were once seen as largely teens' domain.

"It's an employers' market," said Angela Traiforos, executive director of the Community Learning Center in Fort Worth. "They're looking for people with experience."

Fortunately for some Texas teens, the job picture in North Texas isn't as bleak as in other parts of the country. Several industries are adding jobs in the area, and the unemployment rate last month in Fort Worth-Arlington held steady at 4.1 percent. So teens there shouldn't face as much competition from adults as do their counterparts in other communities.

An example

Take Braxton Newman.

The high school senior, who wanted an after-school job at a clothing store this spring, applied to several retailers. When none was hiring, he gave up on fashion and landed a spot on Taco Bueno's payroll.

"I did not want to work in fast food," Newman said. "Oh, well. It's money."

At Six Flags Over Texas - a favorite for teens in search of a job - youngsters are competing more with adults lately, Human Resources Director Marian Buehler said.

"We have targeted the second wage earners, the moms and the seniors the last few years," Buehler said. "We're seeing more folks that want or need a second job."

Still, the company has plenty of jobs for teens with a customer-friendly attitude, she said.

Six Flags has hired about 1,900 people so far - about half of them under age 18, Buehler said. And managers want to fill 500 more jobs at the amusement park as well as 600 at the water park.

Politeness counts

"Mainly, we're just looking for people that have customer-service skills, that will make good eye contact, that are polite," Buehler said.

High school sophomore Travis Bond is among those new employees. Bond, who had been hoping for months to nab his first summer job at Six Flags, didn't apply anywhere else. Now, he spends his weekends operating a game in the Gotham City section.

Sum, who last month advocated before Congress for a nationwide job-stimulus program for young adults, said in his report that teen employment has fallen across sexes, ethnicities and incomes. Nonetheless, black and Hispanic teens from low-income families have fared worst, and boys are less likely to work than girls.

'Just so tight'

The learning center's Traiforos said job prospects are particularly challenging for young people who want to dive into permanent, full-time careers instead of studying at a four-year university.

Although most U.S. high school graduates go on to college, roughly a third of them forgo higher education each fall, according to the labor statistics bureau.

Traiforos recommends getting into a hands-on training program or attending courses to develop skills that can help teens stand out.

"The market is just so tight," she said. "Whoever is out there looking for a job needs to have as many certifications as they possibly can get."

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