Hunter-John Hurst, 16, of Raleigh, is a living example of a modern-day conundrum. Like many others his age, he needs to earn money this summer. But finding a job is tougher than ever, with the number of teenagers employed nationwide at a near-historical low.
He watched some of his friends land work – often with the help of their parents. But when his search failed to turn up a single offer, he decided to turn one of his chores – washing his parents’ cars – into a business. He printed up some fliers offering car cleaning services – known in the trade as detailing – at $35 for a car, $45 for an SUV.
A few days into his new business, he’s feeling the glow of early success.
“It takes about an hour a car and I can make more money than I would at a regular job,” he said. And it’s more fun than the lawn mowing he did last summer.
Hurst has company in his desperate quest for summer work and the need to get creative. About 25 percent of the nation’s 16- to 19-year-olds were in the workforce in 2013, compared with 45 percent in 2000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Failing to find work doesn’t just mean a shortage of cash in the near term. A study released in March by the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program said finding a job when you’re older is harder if you haven’t worked during your teenage years.
In addition, “research shows those who work in high school have wages 10 to 15 percent higher when they graduate from college,” said Ishwar Khatiwada, a co-author of the study and an associate director of research at Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies.
Since 1948, the percentage of teenagers in the workforce had stayed relatively flat at 40 percent or so, dropping to 37 percent in the mid-1960s and rising to a high of 48.5 percent in 1979. But that trend began to reverse in the early 2000s and never rebounded, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The trend holds true when looking solely at summertime employment.
Low-income and minority teenagers are particularly hard hit; only about 17 percent of 16- to 19-year-old African-Americans were employed in 2013.
The story behind the low employment numbers is more complex than it first appears. While many teenagers are unable to find jobs, others place a higher value on summer school and pre-college summer programs, which are far more popular than in the past, according to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In more affluent areas, large numbers of teenagers play year-round sports that leave little time for work. Others, with an eye toward building resumes, perform community service or find unpaid internships.
“Real work experience is being displaced by summer and travel programs,” said John Challenger, executive officer of outplacement company Challenger, Gray & Christmas. But he says he doesn’t think that is necessarily a good thing.
“A lot of kids are missing out by not learning what working is,” he said. They’re also missing the process of job hunting. Part of the experience is developing persistence and the all-important skills of shaking hands, answering questions clearly and looking someone in the eye.
For many teenagers, jobs are much more than an experience, they’re a necessity. But over the years, the lower-level jobs that were once the entryway to employment for young people are being filled by older people who have remained in or returned to the workforce, or by foreign-born workers, Khatiwada said.
In addition, the number of federally funded summer jobs has diminished.
Entrepreneurs like Renée Ward have turned to helping teenagers find jobs. Her site, www.teens4hire.org, offers some free advice and job-hunting tips, but charges a $39 fee for premium options that include job listings.
She encourages teenagers who can’t find work to think about creating their own jobs.
“If someone says, ‘I went to 15 different pet stores and got nothing,’ maybe start a dog-walking business.”
While starting your own business is one option, she said, sometimes accepting unorthodox working arrangements might be another.
One teenager, she said, asked her if he should take a job with a moving company that wouldn’t officially hire him but would pay him off the books.
“I told him to start there, document all your experience and use that to move as quickly as you can to a reputable company,” she said.
Deshawn Childress, 18, of New York just finished high school and has applied to many places, including fast-food and retail stores, so far without success.
He’s hoping a relative might help him land a position where he could continue working when he goes to community college in the fall, but he admits he’s discouraged.
“There’s a lot of competition,” he said. And he’s frustrated that his volunteer work doesn’t seem to make a difference.
“People say volunteering is part of the work experience,” but employers don’t seem to view it as real experience, Childress said.
While job seekers can try innovative ways to attack the job shortage problem, the Brookings Institution study said high teenage unemployment also needed to be addressed through public policy. More programs in high schools and community colleges, for example, like work-based learning, where students learn technical, academic and employability skills in a work environment, could help. More subsidized job programs are also needed, as well as classes that teach teenagers skills like interviewing and resume writing, the report said.
The Boston Private Industry Council – financed with state, city and corporate money – works in Boston public high schools, where the students “are hungry for jobs,” said Josh Bruno, the council’s director of school to career and employer engagement. “They depend on summer job earnings to supplement their family income.”
The organization provides mock interviews, job shadowing and resume help during the school year and then works with employers to place most of the students in jobs at places like banks and hospitals.
“We’re trying to educate employers about how valuable it is to hire teenagers,” Bruno said. “Some we have are trilingual, many are really good at technology. They have a lot of energy and see things differently.”