Tough Summer for Teens Seeking Jobs

Barbara Cervone
July 12, 2012

“I’ve kinda given up,” high school senior Sam Cromer recently told a Chattanooga reporter scouting the summer job scene. “Basically everywhere I’ve gone, they’ve said they’re full.”

Colleen Knaggs, a recent high school graduate in Flagstaff, Arizona, submitted a dozen applications for summer cashier positions, she explains in HuffPost Teen. A dozen “no’s” made babysitting for her younger brother the only option. “It’s really frustrating,” says Knaggs, 18, who wants to save for college and living on her own. With the highest teen unemployment rate in the nation, Arizona makes that a tough goal to meet.

More than seven in ten U.S. teenagers are jobless this summer. The days are gone when 16-to-19 year olds could easily snag a job waiting tables, flipping burgers, tending cash registers, or stocking shelves. In today’s weak economy, older workers, debt-ridden college grads, and adults laid off from higher-skilled employment are grabbing jobs once relegated to the young.

The employment rate for American teenagers has fallen to the lowest level since World War II.

Predictably, class and race tilt the playing field. Upper-income white teens are three times as likely to have summer jobs as poor black teens; among other things, they can capitalize on their parents’ social networks for help. The opportunities for African American and Latino youth are far from equal. Many live in neighborhoods with few job openings and face discrimination at multiple levels. In 2006, only 27 percent of African American teens and 37 percent of Latino teens had summer jobs, compared with 50 percent of white teens. In recent summers, the gap has widened.

For low-income teens, the losses multiply. They lose not only a badly needed weekly paycheck, but also the job experience that leads to future employment. Without that money, a college education is also likely to elude their grasp.

“I want to believe that hard work pays off,” Providence teen Mario Cardoza told WKCD. “That’s what my family taught me. That’s what my teachers say. But after weeks looking for a summer job, any kind of job, I guess you’d say my faith is evaporating in the summer heat. I’m so down.”

The role of the federal government

Since the 1930s, the federal government has stepped into the summer job breach for poor and minority youth. During the Great Depression, the focus was on employing “idle young men” through public works and other projects. The employment programs from this era included an educational component to encourage youth to obtain their high school diplomas.

In the 1960s, the federal government began a summer jobs program specifically for youth. When a Republican Congress effectively ended it in 1999, the program provided 500,000 jobs at the cost of $871 million; 55 percent of youth aged 16 to 19 held at least a part-time job. Today’s primary federal youth employment and job training programs are authorized under the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 and carried out by the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration. Funding authorization for the youth programs under WIA expired in FY2003. Since then, Congress has appropriated funds on a year-to-year basis for selected programs authorized under the law. Last autumn, a divided Congress failed to enact another jobs measure, which included $1.5 billion for summer and year-round jobs for low-income teenagers and young adults. In January 2012, President Obama invited business and nonprofits to join the federal government in a summer job program to fill in the $1.5 billion Congress had failed to appropriate.

The federal government’s retrenchment as an employer for hard-pressed teens casts a long shadow, even though the private sector has historically provided the vast majority of summer jobs. Summer work is often the first step on a lifetime jobs ladder.

“How do you learn [to work]?” explains Andrew Sum, an economist who studies youth job markets at Northeastern University. “You spend time in the workplace. Fewer kids are getting serious work experience during their high school years.”

Summer programs

For young people with means, there’s always been an alternative to the summer job: sports, arts and music, science and nature camps; volunteer opportunities; travel abroad sometimes mixing community service with adventure; vacationing with the family. Today, the Internet provides fertile territory for selling and buying summer experiences that promise to be unique—like a barista institute for teens in Eugene, Oregon—if not transforming. (“A Global Works trip is so much more than just a vacation,” one of dozens of summer travel programs for teens says. “Our service adventure programs are uniquely designed so that our participants have a ‘purpose’ while traveling to incredible destinations around the world.”) /

For teens without means, community institutions such as Ys, Boys & Girls Clubs, and the United Way have provided a modest summer hangout for more than a century. Some national programs, like Outward Bound (adventure education) or Upward Bound (college access), have been in operation since the 1960s.

And in towns and cities across the country, one-of-a-kind summer programs spring from the passions of adult allies and work their wonders. In Chicago, for example, Blackstone Bicycle Works teaches mechanical skills, job skills, and business literacy to boys and girls from Chicago’s South Side. After 25 hours in the shop, young workers can pick a bike from the refurbished selection, along with a new helmet and lock. In Arizona, Grand Canyon Youth takes nearby Native American teens into the Canyon to draw and write about what they see and hear. In the Mississippi Delta, Sunflower Freedom Project builds a corps of “academically capable, socially conscious, and mentally disciplined young leaders.” Just outside Boston, the Food Project has joined inner-city and suburban youth in growing produce for the area’s “food insecure” for more than 20 years.

The best summer programs provide youth participants rewards that can’t be measured in dollars and cents. But they do not and cannot replace paid summer employment.

Just imagine

In a 2007 post on People’s World, titled “Cure for Summer Job Blues,” New Haven community activist Art Perlo wrote:

"Imagine a federal Youth Jobs Administration (YJA) that would invite every city and state department, high school, national park and nonprofit to prepare a plan to use youth power. A YJA could pay the wages of the teens and their supervisors, and provide funds for overhead, planning and materials. Here are a few ideas.

"They could canvass neighborhoods door-to-door to survey community needs and problems, and inform residents of city programs and services. They could organize community-based cleanups, beautification, block parties, neighborhood watches. They could serve as counselors for programs for younger kids. They could work on maintenance, new construction and landscaping at city parks. They could design and implement web sites and other computer infrastructure for municipal agencies, nonprofits and small businesses.

"It would cost about $8 billion to provide a summer job for every teenager who wants one. That’s three and a half weeks of the Iraq war. It would cost only $4 billion to bring jobs back to their 1998 level. As a community activist in New Haven pointed out, that’s about what Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spends every year spreading fear and breaking up families by arresting, jailing and deporting undocumented workers.

Jobs or war? Jobs or fear? Which would you choose?"

At a time when our nation is leaving so many youth behind, shouldn’t we choose jobs?

“What’s the phrase? Something like the ‘gone’ or ‘lost’ generation,” mused Mario Cardoza, from Providence. “Lost. That’s us.”

This article was originally published by What Kids Can Do. It is reprinted here with permission.