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Teenagers’ job market hurting

Teen workers are finding it increasingly  difficult to find summer work. It is estimated that less than 40 percent of teenagers will find a summer job this year.
 (File/Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Teen workers are finding it increasingly difficult to find summer work. It is estimated that less than 40 percent of teenagers will find a summer job this year. (File/Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

SEATTLE – If the job market is improving again, why can’t Barbara Sims get a job at McDonald’s?

Other young workers may be wondering the same thing. Despite two years of job gains across the nation, the dramatic drop in youth employment shows no signs of reversing.

Only 36.7 percent of U.S. teenagers will find work this summer, according to the latest forecast from Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies.

That estimate may be optimistic, however. In the past three years actual employment numbers fell below economists’ predictions. If this summer follows that pattern, it could be the worst teen job market on record.

“Normally, 20 months into the jobs recovery teenagers would not only gain jobs, but they would begin to gain disproportionately,” said Andrew Sum, an economist and author of the study released this month. “This time around they’ve got zero.”

In Washington state, 40 percent of teens held jobs in 2004, compared with 56 percent in 2000. The numbers are better for 20- to 24-year-olds, but still below typical youth employment levels, despite Washington gaining 116,000 new jobs over the past two years.

“The lower-wage, entry-level jobs are now being taken by adults,” says Caroline Maillard, who heads youth programs for the Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County. “And when you talk about teens and young adults who don’t have a lot of education under their belts, the trends get more severe.”

Sims, a 20-year-old former foster child whose frequent moves cost her a high-school diploma, is aiming for retail jobs, but she’s had no success.

“I’ve applied everywhere. Starbucks, the Bon, McDonald’s, Safeway. They’re like, we’ll call and let you know.”

Even with the GED she plans to get soon, she worries about the competition.

“If you have high-school diploma or a GED, they’re going to pick the person with the high-school diploma.”

Stung by shrinking retirement benefits and lured by retailers and other low-wage employers, older workers are taking a chunk out of the teen job market.

Just as teenage employment has dropped, the number of over-55 workers in the state has climbed, from 149,500 in 2001 to 181,194 in 2004, in part because baby boomers have hit their 50s.

Other competition for low-wage jobs is coming from across the borders. The United States gained 3 million immigrant workers over the past five years, more than half of them under 30.

In this state they account for roughly 73 percent of the employment growth between 2000 and 2004, according to the labor center’s analysis.

“A lot are young, a lot don’t have a diploma,” Sum said, “and they’ll compete for the same jobs young Americans do.”

There is one encouraging spot on the summer-job landscape: Hiring is finally picking up for college students and grads.

Employers plan to increase their college hiring 13 percent over last year, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

“It’s getting a little bit richer,” said Susan Terry, who manages University of Washington’s career center. “Not a lot – I don’t want to exaggerate.”

Graduates who majored in computer engineering or accounting are more likely to find work than they were three years ago. Others, however, may still find it hard to land a career job.

Brendan Malec recently graduated from DePaul University with a degree in English.

“I’d heard jokes like, ‘You’re going to end up flipping burgers.’ But I didn’t know they were kind of true,” he said.

The 24-year-old, who relocated from Chicago, had hoped to land a $30,000-a-year job with a nonprofit where he could use his writing skills.

Two months into his search, he’s ratcheted down his expectations.

“Now I’m just trying to get any job that I can make money with.”