American Renaissance

For Teenagers, No Help-Wanted Signs

Competition with adult job-seekers limits opportunities

Charles Stein, The Boston Globe, Mar. 6

Claribel Aguilar almost got a job. Her interview at Target went well, and she was sure she would be offered a position at the discount chain’s new store in the South Bay Center in Dorchester, a Boston neighborhood.

But when the letter arrived in the mail, it was another rejection.

At 18, Aguilar has plenty of experience with rejection. A senior at Dorchester High School, she has been looking for a job for more than a year.

She has been to supermarkets, drugstores, retailers — the kind of places that teenagers traditionally work — but the answer is always the same: no openings.

“My mother says I must not be trying hard enough,” Aguilar said, “but I don’t know. No one is hiring. It is discouraging.”

For people of all ages, the current U.S. job market is a tough one. For teenagers, it is brutal. The weak economy has forced adults to seek the low-skill, low-wage jobs that teens usually occupy.

On top of that, a continuing inflow of immigrants has created still more competition at the bottom of the job market.

The net result: Teenagers are being elbowed aside.

“The youth labor market is in a depression,” said Neil Sullivan, president of the Boston Private Industry Council, a group that finds jobs for young people.

The problem is not unique to Boston. According to a new study by Andrew Sum, a professor at the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston, the percentage of 16 — to 19-year-olds holding jobs in the United States is the lowest it has been since the government began tracking statistics in 1948.

In 2000, at the peak of the last economic boom, 45 percent of the group was working. Today, less than 37 percent of 16 — to 19-year-olds are employed.

For middle-class youth, having no job may mean there is less money for clothes and cars. For poor teenagers, the loss is more serious.

“Some of these kids have to help pay the utility bills,” said Tammy Hingston, a career specialist at South Boston Educational Complex.

Competition for jobs always gets more intense in difficult times. College graduates take jobs that in better periods would go to high-school graduates. Full-time workers trade down to part-time positions.

The past three years have been especially hard on job-seekers.

The U.S. economy has shed 2.3 million jobs since the beginning of 2001. Job growth resumed in the past six months, but the gains have been modest by historical standards.

What distinguishes today’s tight job market from earlier ones is the new competition posed by immigrants. Sum estimates that 2.5 million immigrants found work in the United States between 2000 and 2003. Employers, Sum said, like the fact that immigrants can work more hours and more shifts than teenagers. Immigrants also have a reputation for being dependable and well-motivated employees.

Getting big employers to talk about hiring patterns is not easy. A number of major employers, including McDonald’s, TJX and Stop Shop, declined to comment when asked about hiring. Dunkin’ Donuts said it left all hiring decisions to its franchises.

Job counselors who work with teenagers are trying to deliver the message that the world has become harsher. Lauri Murphy, youth program coordinator at the Career Place in Woburn, Massachusetts, tells teenagers they are competing with adults for jobs and that they must adjust their expectations accordingly.

“Typically when kids apply for a summer job they might want a week off to go to camp or do something else,” Murphy said. “I tell them, ‘You can’t do that. You are up against someone who is going to be there every day and you need to deal with that.’“

For Hingston, the shift in the job market has been bewildering. As recently as three years ago, employers regularly called Hingston, who works for the Private Industry Council in a basement office at South Boston Educational Complex.

In those days, she had a folder on her desk with the names of roughly a dozen companies that were looking for students. Today her folder is empty.

“Now I call companies and beg them to take a student,” she said.

Students visit the office hoping for good news. Some come in every day. They update their resumes and attend practice workshops. “They are good kids,” said Hingston. “I just can’t find work for them.”

At Hingston’s invitation, three students came to her office recently to talk about their experiences. Their stories were depressingly similar. All had been looking for jobs, sometimes for as much as a year. In most cases they could not even get an interview.

“The only way to get a job is if you know someone,” said Brandon Jamieson, an 18-year-old senior. Without prompting, Shaneka Davis, a 17-year-old junior, put her finger on the problem. “There are older people, parents looking for second jobs,” she said. “They are taking jobs away from us.”

Current high-school students are not the only ones struggling. Jeff Jackson, who counsels students at Dorchester High School, frequently hears from recent graduates. When they call, said Jackson, they initially pretend the contact is purely social. “But after a few minutes, they say, ‘Do you have any jobs?’“ he said.

In Boston and other U.S. cities, the job picture is cause for concern. For inner-city youths, work not only provides critical cash. It connects young people to the larger world, cuts dropout rates, and improves the chances students will go on in school.

“If kids are busy, they are off the streets,” Hingston said. “If they are not busy, they get into trouble more, stay out later, and they don’t get to school on time. There are repercussions.”

The Boston Globe