No help wanted: Teens find it difficult to get work this summer

Grace Coughlin will enter Wheaton College as a freshman in the fall, and was hoping to have earnings from a summer job saved up by then for books and spending money.

But the 18-year-old from Mystic hasn't been able to find a summer job, although she has two prospects in the wings.

"It's definitely frustrating," Coughlin said in an email. "I've filed almost too many applications to count. Since March I've tried looking for jobs in food service, in maid service at hotels, in clothing stores and as a camp leader. Basically, any bottom-of-the-chain job. Some shop owners said I applied too late, some said (too) early; most just don't call back."

Last year, the job picture for teenagers between the ages of 16 and 19 was statistically the worst it's been since World War II, at 25.9 percent unemployment nationally and 21.9 percent in Connecticut, according to economists working with the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics.

While 2010 is the latest date available for such statistics, Boston-based regional labor economist Tim Consedine confirmed what teenagers, employers and economic experts in southeastern Connecticut are saying about hiring for summer jobs this season: finding a seasonal job this summer is difficult.

"We have noticed worsening conditions for our teenage labor market, no doubt about it," Consedine said. "It is a function of worsening labor market conditions leading to more experienced highly skilled workers filling occupations that used to be filled by teenagers. Opportunities for school-age youth to obtain work are fewer and farther between."

John Beauregard, executive director of the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board Inc., agreed the market for teens is rough. Last year, spurred on by federal stimulus money, Beauregard was able to help pay wages for 550 teen hires. This year, with no federal funds and some state funding, that number has dropped to 420 kids across the region.

"The thing kids are facing, is they're running into very stiff competition not only from some of the college kids returning home from school, but also from adult workers looking for some of the same entry-level or part-time jobs that will come open over the summer," Beauregard said.

"There's a much stiffer competition for a scarcer number of jobs."

At Ocean Beach Park in New London, manager Dave Sugrue said that teens constitute two thirds of a full summer staff, working primarily in the concession stands and as lifeguards. He praised the young workers as aggressive kids who "really want to prove they can do something … and show they have what it takes. For a lot of them, it's their first job."

"We had to turn a lot of teens away," admits Sugrue. "There was a substantial amount of kids we couldn't hire, that we just didn't have positions for."

Steve Lanza, executive editor of the Connecticut Economy, a University of Connecticut Quarterly Review, said the recession has exacerbated the already tough summer job market for teens.

"It's harder for teens to get jobs because the economy's taken a hit in sectors where teens would normally look for work - in the retail trade area, construction or restaurants," Lanza said. "And a lot of adults are chasing after those jobs. Their skill sets are higher, they may be more dependable."

Employers also say that many teenagers with good track records have returned to summer jobs again this year, which means that there are fewer new hires.

"Everybody from last year came back, literally everybody," said Debra Salomonson, who owns Dad's Restaurant in East Lyme. "I do have a pile of applicants. The really clever ones started in April. I I've got nine kids right now who, it's their second or third summer."

This year, like last year, Salomonson hired 35 teens for a mix of full- and part-time work running the cash register, cleaning tables, dispensing orders, cooking, prepping, selling ice cream and manning the Fryolator, she said.

Erica Hanner, 16, who is going into her senior year at Waterford High School, and working at Dad's, said it's easier to get a summer job "if you know people on the inside," which is how she got this job.

"I know some of my friends are having a hard time because everyone's pretty much hired their staff for the summer," she said.

In Stonington, summer camp is staffed by youth, and 60 percent of those hired are returning after having worked last summer, said Beth Stewart, a human resources director there. And adults have been applying for positions historically held by teens, she added, not just this summer but for the past three summers.

"I certainly would tie it to the recession," she said.

Patrick Flaherty, an economist with the Connecticut Department of Labor, said that while the state agency doesn't break down employment figures for teens as a group, the unemployment rate for teens tends to be higher than for the rest of the population.

"The unemployment rate has not budged in 2011, so my expectation is that the same is true for teens," Flaherty said.


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