Weak Summer Job Market Means Teens Should Look Early

Budget cuts at the federal, state, and local levels can be partly to blame.

By + More

Teenagers hoping to land a job this summer should be prepared to face some stiff competition. Last summer, teens slogged through the worst summer employment market in decades, and this year likely won't be much better, predicts outplacement company Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

"It doesn't look as though this year is going to see a big improvement," says John Challenger, the company's CEO. "Many companies are just being very careful about taking too many chances coming out of the recession ... And obviously governments are severely taxed."

[See 10 Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Internship.]

Budget cuts at the federal, state, and local levels can be partly to blame for fewer opportunities to earn a paycheck. With less funding, government summer-employment programs are offering fewer jobs. The City of Chicago, for example, plans to hire 14,000 teens this summer, down from 18,000 last summer.

In New York City, the picture is even worse. The city's Summer Youth Employment Program will hire 18,000 teens this summer compared with twice as many—35,000—last year. And both of those numbers pale in comparison with the banner year of 2009, when stimulus and state money allowed the city to hire 52,000 teenage workers.

"[Not having jobs] means a lot for the teens, for their families, and for their communities," says Jeanne Mullgrav, commissioner of the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development, who participated in the program when she was a teenager in the 1980s. "[Teenagers] need to learn those life skills ... [And] families often rely on this money and use them for bills and back-to-school resources."

Summer hiring last year was at its lowest since 1949, Challenger, Gray & Christmas reports. Employment among 16- to 19-year-olds increased by only 960,000 jobs during May, June, and July, the company reports, citing Labor Department statistics. That's down nearly 18 percent from 2009, when teen employment grew by 1.16 million jobs.

[See our graph that shows the drop in summer employment.]

In a struggling economy, fewer available positions isn't the only problem for teenagers. With an unemployment rate hovering around 9 percent, adults who might otherwise consider themselves overqualified for seasonal employment are now applying for summer positions, creating even more competition for younger workers.

"More people are willing to take on some of the entry-level jobs just to make ends meet," Challenger says. "Some companies are choosing some of those [more experienced] people ahead of some of the teen [workers]."

Although the outlook is bleak for seasonal positions in the public sector, private companies could pick up some of the slack. The private sector showed improvement in the Labor Department's most recent jobs report, gaining 222,000 jobs in February. That's not enough to make a dent in job losses accumulated during the recession, but it shows the employment market is on the road to a slow recovery.

That means teenagers might have better luck finding a job as a waiter, amusement-park employee, or worker at a retail store, rather than depending on government summer-employment programs. The Home Depot, for example, plans to hire 60,000 workers this summer, about the same number the company hired during the last few summers, says Eric Schelling, the company's director of talent acquisition. The ages of their seasonal employees run the gamut, he says, although workers do have to be 18.

[See The Most Effective Ways to Get a Job.]

What's a teenager to do? Here are a few tips for finding a summer job:

Get out early. Summer may seem like a long way off, but it's not too early to start looking. Employers like amusement parks are already filling their summer positions, says Shawn Boyer, CEO of SnagAJob.com, a job board for hourly positions. "Getting out early is probably one of the most important things you can do."

Consider the odd-jobs route. Use your entrepreneurial skills to make money babysitting, mowing lawns, tutoring, or even teaching your adult neighbor how to use Facebook, Challenger suggests. Finding or creating jobs that aren't advertised means you'll face less competition.