Summer is typically the peak employment season for teens; yet the percentage of America’s 16-to-19-year-olds who land jobs during the sunny months has plummeted over the past decade, and so far this summer, the percentage already lags behind last year’s figures.
Automation, competition from older workers and immigrants, an increase in online shopping, concerns about liability, and media-fueled images of teens as unreliable and irresponsible—all are among the reasons job experts say there’s been a 19-percentage-point drop in teen hiring since 2000.
“Teen hiring has been on a decline for quite a while now,” said Renee Ward, founder of Teens4Hire, an online career center. “Part of it is the retraction of available jobs. So who’s typically going to fall out of the loop? The unskilled and the least skilled. American businesses are in business to make money; they’re not in business to give some teenager their first job.”
The employment rate for the nation’s teens fell by 19 percentage points between 2000 and 2010—from nearly 46 percent to just below 27 percent, according to an April 2013 study by Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies, which examined employment among 16-to-19-year-olds. Although the rate climbed to 30.5 percent last summer, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that teen hiring so far this summer lags behind last year: Specifically, 994,000 teens found jobs in May and June of 2013, which marks a 2.1 percent drop from the 1 million who found jobs in the same period in 2012.
As for full-year employment, only 26 percent of U.S. teens held paid position in 2011 and 2012, the lowest annual employment rate for teens in the post-World War II era, according to Northeastern University’s study.
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) sets wage, hour and safety requirements for minors working in jobs covered by the statute. The rules vary depending on the minor’s age and the work. In general, the FLSA sets 14 years as the minimum age for employment, limits the hours worked by those younger than 16 and forbids employers from hiring youths younger than 16 for jobs deemed “hazardous.”
Baby Boomers who need to supplement their income during retirement, college graduates who can’t land jobs in their fields of study, and immigrants and guest workers who are seeking jobs in greater numbers all create competition for entry-level positions that once went to teens.
People 50 and older “are sometimes working seasonally to supplement a winter relaxing in the warmth of Florida or Arizona,” said Patty Ceglio, Web-recruiting and seasonal HR specialist at Colorado-based CoolWorks.com, which helps people find seasonal jobs. “We've seen many of these people throughout the years, and I think it's more prevalent now with the market taking down IRAs [and] savings.”
Such jobs may be especially attractive to older Americans because of the benefits they offer. Starbucks, for instance, provides benefits even for part-time workers.
“You have this pool of workers—say, 60 to 65—and they may have been shifted from a defined retirement plan to a 401k plan that isn’t looking so good, and they need more income,” observed John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. “They say, ‘I’m healthy; I’m bored at home; I’m looking for flexibility,’ and they’re happy to be the greeter at Wal-Mart.”
Immigrants, who may have few work skills and speak spotty English, are also competing for traditional teen jobs. Once they’re hired, Ward said, they tend to recruit relatives for open positions.
Malls, previously a pretty safe bet for job-seeking adolescents, are hiring less as consumers turn to online shopping. “Malls made it easier for teens because they could go from store to store,” Challenger said. “But you can’t just go to one mall anymore and visit multiple retailers who might hire you.”
Automation also means fewer jobs for low-skilled workers. “In your fast-food restaurant you see kiosks that displace the person who once took your order,” Ward said. “Maybe now you only need one person to operate the cooking equipment, where in years past you needed three or four.”
Some Hazardous Jobs Off-Limits
It doesn’t help that the FLSA now prohibits companies from hiring minors for jobs that the U.S. secretary of labor has deemed hazardous—excavation, driving or working with many types of power-driven equipment are examples. There are exceptions to this rule—minors can do such work for their parents or on their own. In other words, a 14-year-old can drag her own lawnmower around the neighborhood seeking work, but companies that run yard services can’t hire her.
Finally, some employers believe—accurately or not—that today’s teens are lazy and unreliable. This perception is partly fueled by media representations of youths, Challenger said. But part of it isn’t.
Challenger said his 20-year-old daughter, who works in a retail store, trained teen employees and found that “sometimes, no matter what she says, they don’t listen to her. Customers come in, but [the teens] stay on their cellphones. Customers have clothes they want to try on, but [the teens] don’t help them carry them to the changing room.”
Where the Jobs Are
Teens who do get jobs, Ward said, tend to be extraordinarily ambitious and hardworking. They’re lifeguards, tutors or baby sitters. They run amusement-park rides, detail cars or take internships for low pay.
“Sometimes they have computer experience that’s really valuable,” Challenger noted. “Teens can demand high wages for these skills, maybe in training others, in repairing hardware or software, in programming. Companies are having a very hard time finding people with the right skills for these jobs, especially since technology is changing so quickly.”
Challenger said failing to find summer work could have long-term effects on teens.
“They try a couple of places and don’t get hired, and sometimes they just give up,” he said. “It’s hard enough for adults to get rejected a few times, but more so for teens. [Working at a summer job is] a formative experience that teaches teens about earning money that’s their own, about being responsible. There’s a real risk that we have young people who don’t get some of those experiences and aren’t as prepared for the working world.”
Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM. To read the original article on SHRM.org, please click here.