The Summer Search: Teenage Unemployment Still Stuck

How does summer stay productive when jobs are scarce?

Ah, summer. The three months set aside for teens to stretch their legs out from under their desks, head to camp, or sign up for programs like the Almost Authors Summer Workshop, Carnegie Mellon University’s pre-college programs, or the Carrie Deer Salvage Art Workshop.

It’s is also the time to earn some money and pick up a slew of invaluable work and life skills by getting a good ol’ summer job.

Summer jobs expose teens to industries they might later call a career. Steve Jobs’ summer job, adding screws on a Hewlett Packard assembly line, shaped his love for computers; he described his first day as “bliss.” Hillary Clinton babysat children of immigrants doing summer itinerant work. Then, of course, there are less enlightening but still important jobs—Tina Fey has said she served cheesesteaks at a swim club so her mother could swim for free.

But these days even the roughest summer jobs are more difficult to come by. The teenage job market has been hit hardest by the recession. And the bottom has essentially dropped out for summer employment, as older, experienced workers vie for the same positions as teens—without needing to reduce their hours come September. While other segments of the job market have climbed toward recovery, there’s been “no net increase in teenage employment since the recovery began,” according to recent research by Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies.

Teens today are facing the highest rates of unemployment since World War II, with overall unemployment rates for 16- to 19-year-olds at 24 percent in June. The unemployment rate for young women is hovering at about 20 percent nationally, about 2 percentage points higher than 10 years ago. Unemployment for men in the same age range is 28 percent. while in 2003 it was 19.9 percent, which reflects the particularly difficult way the recession has affected men.

Unemployment rates for minority and low-income youth are even more sobering. Last summer, for example, only one in five teens from low-income families had a job, compared with 38 percent of those from high-income families.

In trying economic times, summer jobs become paramount for teens pitching in to pay for some of their own, or their parents’, expenses or saving for college. Teens who can’t find work not only lose out not only on that income, but also on gaining professional references and learning valuable lessons like the importance of showing up on time, among other soft skills employers clamor for. Teen employment can even reduce levels of teen violence, as a recent Northeastern University study found in Boston.

In an effort to boost opportunities for US teenagers, the Senate has acted to downsize “summer-work travel” visas as part of the immigration reform bill. Last year, the visa program brought about 92,000 international students to work over the summer, and another 13,789 au pairs. Proponents of cutting the program claim that it not only fills up summer job openings with foreign youth and makes it harder for local teens searching high and low for summer work, it’s even unfair to international youth, who are often dismayed when the jobs they travel for end up being behind a fast food counter, explains USA Today.

“Instead of providing our young people with their first taste of real work, these jobs are going to J-1 guest workers,” writes Daniel Costa on the Economic Policy Institute’s blog. “Why? Because employers have tight control over guest workers, can pay them less than the prevailing wage, and aren’t required to pay Social Security, Medicare and unemployment taxes on their behalf.”

Even with the possible return of some of those jobs, the teen job market still has a long way to go. So tough times means getting creative, and not all is lost. A traditional job might be hard to track down, but determined teens can still pack this summer with informal learning by earning badges through Mozilla’s Open Badges program.

Intended as a way to prove skills learned informally, badges show future employers or colleges skills like Javascript or robotics that teens learned on their own or in informal settings—skills the modern workforce needs but that are difficult to display except on a flat, one-page job resume. Badges can be displayed on social media sites, blogs, or personal websites and are issued by organizations ranging from NASA to local libraries.

If you haven’t already, check out Chicago’s Learning Initiative, the first of its kind to offer badges to kids completing educational activities this summer. Then, see what badges are being issued so you can fill up the remaining hazy days learning lifelong skills.

Published July 19, 2013