Flipped Out

Even as teens shun work force, job opportunities await

January 6, 2008

By Ruth Mantell

WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) — Flipping burgers may have lost the allure it once held for the college-bound, given that labor-force participation rate among older teens is at a record low.

New data indicates that last year’s labor-force participation rate for 16- to 19-year-olds hit 41.3% — down from a peak of 57.9% in 1979, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Experts cite increasing competition for jobs, as well as low wages and high pressure for college admittance as factors keeping kids out of the labor pool.

“They perceive that it’s less beneficial for them to be working,” says Steven Goodman, a college admissions consultant in Washington. “It’s no longer possible to work at McDonald’s and put yourself through college because the numbers don’t add up.”

In 2006, the typical earnings of more than half of working older teenagers were less than $200 per week, according to BLS. With wages like these, even parents see that extracurricular activities such as sports and clubs can be better options to help kids prepare for their future, Goodman says.

“The parents perceive that the numbers don’t make sense. They understand that the economic impact on the tuition bill is going to be so minuscule that it may not be worth it to have the students be exhausted from working and playing a sport — that sometimes it may make sense to give the student a little breathing room,” he says.

A good option for teenagers playing to their strengths would be to tutor, Goodman suggests.

“You earn some money, and it teaches you the value of work,” he says. “If you are good at tennis, or you are good at math, by all means use that to your advantage.”

Abraham Mosisa, an economist with BLS, says older teens are staying out of the work force in part as they are looking to further their education.

“Although tuition is increasing, there are more federal grants and loans available for kids to go to school,” he says. “School enrollment is up because there’s more financing these days.”

He added that competition for lower-skill jobs, traditionally positions filled by teenagers, has been increasing for years, making it difficult for teens to land jobs. Baby boomers are also crowding out some teens as they opt for part-time jobs that once might have gone to their younger rivals.

“The flow of immigrants, both legal and illegal has increased enormously. These [people] are older, but they compete directly with teenagers working in service-related jobs,” Mosisa says. “[Teens] are being outcompeted by other groups so they gave up looking for a job.”

Opportunities remain for tricky age group
Teenagers are a tricky age group: Adults know they’ll have to train teenagers, even for many entry-level positions. Employers see a major difference between tasks that a 14-year-old and a 19-year-old can perform. And legally there are constraints on younger teens, such as a ban on working in construction. Jobs that younger teens are qualified for are going to be based on labor or unskilled positions that require time, and not much in the way of mental effort, such as snow shoveling, yard maintenance and baby-sitting.

Despite increased competition, teens are still finding jobs in service and hospitality, sales and office occupations, and summer stints such as lifeguarding and working at amusement parks.

But teens have also been getting more creative, taking advantage of new opportunities provided by the Internet while also scouring the local job market for openings that aren’t immediately obvious.

Renee Ward, founder of online job site Teens4Hire.org, suggests that kids get jobs at local grocery stores and museums. They can contact local city agencies and teachers, and ask their parents and parents’ friends about opportunities.

“They don’t even think about a job at the local library, but that is a good place where they may be able to find some part-time work,” Ward says.

David Perry, a recruiter and co-author of “Guerrilla Marketing for Job Hunters,” likes retail positions for teens because workers will come into contact with people, and there’s a lot of turnover. They should start their job search at the largest local mall.

“There’s always a help-wanted sign in the back of the manager’s mind,” Perry says.

He has particular respect for fast-food workers.

“It’s very systemic,” Perry says. “You watch that team of teenagers behind the counter and they just hum.”

He added that teens looking for work should keep in mind that many part-time or casual jobs don’t advertise. So job seekers should walk in off the street.

“A lot of people won’t put up a help-wanted sign because they don’t want a lot of applications,” he says.

Finally, Perry recommends that teens go for jobs in the same field that they’d like to pursue as a career.

“Go and get a job that feeds into that system. If you are going to be a doctor or nurse, then go work in a hospital,” he says.

Entrepreneurship a year-round opportunity
Being an entrepreneur is a top way for teens to make cash year-round, experts say.

“You are very much in control of when you do the work, and how much work you do,” says Steven Rothberg, father of a 13-year-old e-entrepreneur. “You can make it as part-time or as full-time as you want.”

Rothberg, founder of career Web site CollegeRecruiter.com, taught his son how to sell goods online in about half an hour. Selling goods online can be a good option for younger and older teens, Rothberg says. In a single week this summer, Rothberg’s son earned about $200 for 10 hours work, selling consumer electronics, inline skates and other items on Craigslist.org, an online community billboard.

Rothberg adds that running an online business, even if it’s out of a teen’s bedroom, can be a great entrepreneurial experience. Teenagers can also start ventures such as their own lawn-mowing service.

“When they go to get a job at a Starbucks, they’ll be able to show the hiring manager that they are a self-starter,” Rothberg says.

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