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For young job seekers, field offers slim pickings

Wed., June 9, 2010

Grant Gillies, left, and Caleb Peck, 18 and 19 respectively, weed the backyard of a house in the Mead area on Tuesday. The two started GNC Lawn Care and have been building their business for the summer. (Jesse Tinsley)
Grant Gillies, left, and Caleb Peck, 18 and 19 respectively, weed the backyard of a house in the Mead area on Tuesday. The two started GNC Lawn Care and have been building their business for the summer. (Jesse Tinsley)

Teenagers looking for summer jobs are running into a wall. Teen hiring in May – typically the kick-off for seasonal jobs kids get to save for college or pay for fun – was worse than it’s been in more than 40 years.

Grant Gillies and Caleb Peck decided to hire themselves.

Gillies, 18, and Peck, 19, have a classic summer job – mowing lawns, doing yardwork – but they’re giving it a professional gloss. They have a business name, GNC Lawn Care, and are adding equipment as the calls come in.

“We’ve been very busy,” said Gillies.

With some hustle and hard work, the two longtime friends and 2009 Mead High School graduates are circumventing a problem facing a lot of their peers – a historically bad job market for the young. Kids turning to traditional places for summer jobs – restaurants and service positions, part-time and temporary work – are finding no room at the inn. Many times, the jobs are filled by older workers pushed down the economic food chain by layoffs.

Lauren Clark, an 18-year-old who just graduated from Lewis and Clark, is looking for a job to help pay the tuition at Western Washington University in the fall. Like Gillies and Peck, she turned to Craigslist, seeking work as a babysitter or nanny, since her applications at local businesses have so far proved fruitless.

“I haven’t heard anything back,” she said. “It’s really hard to get your first job.”

While the unemployment rate for all workers has been bad, it’s been unheard of for the young. The jobless rate for workers 16 to 24 is 20 percent; for those 16 to 17, it’s 29 percent. Just to be clear – these are figures for teens looking for work, not counting all-day video gamers. And they’re worse than they’ve been since the government started keeping statistics in 1947.

In May, some 6,000 jobs for workers ages 16 to 19 were added to the U.S. economy, according to the consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. That’s off 95 percent from last year.

The local picture is similarly rough.

“We’re seeing our youth having a very difficult time finding jobs, as well,” said Heidi Peterson, youth services manager for the Next Generation Zone in Spokane. That service helps young people develop job skills and operates a federal summer jobs program, among other assistance.

One big obstacle for teens is the fact that slightly older, slightly more experienced workers are taking jobs that used to be there for first-timers. It’s a different kind of trickledown effect, in which a sinking tide lowers all boats.

Take fast food. Gillies said that, when he was considering how to earn money this summer, “I knew I could always get on at a fast-food place or something.”

But those jobs are not the sure thing they used to be. John Carlson, who owns a Zip’s on East Sprague, said he hasn’t hired a high school student without job experience in two years.

With the higher minimum wage, it’s expensive to train and retrain a work force that is constantly turning over, he said. And right now, he doesn’t have to – people with plenty of work history, jobs in construction and manufacturing, are showing up at his door.

“We’re seeing these people apply for jobs here,” he said.

Brittany Anderson is on the other end of that scenario. With no work history, the recent Shadle grad is finding a lot of dead ends.

“At this point, I am looking for anything,” she said. “All the things I’m seeing require a lot of experience, and I don’t have any.”

So it’s a good time for Gillies and Peck to set their own course. Both are planning to pursue more education and training in the fall – Gillies at Spokane Falls Community College and Peck in Avista’s lineman training program. In the meantime, they’ve been building their business by posting fliers, placing ads online and spreading the word.

“You have to look for what’s out there, explore and really be like an investigator,” Gillies said.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at or (509) 459-5431.


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