Despite an abundance of "help wanted" signs on the fast-food restaurants and in shopping centers for service workers, students looking for a good summer job this year will find it tougher than ever.
"I can't find anything that pays real well, and you always have to have transportation to get there," said Bob Thompson as he cruised the lot of Padonia Village Shopping Center with friends one night last week. "Maybe I'll go to summer school, if something doesn't turn up," said the Dulaney Senior High School student.
In that Cockeysville shopping center, there was no shortage of service jobs. The sandwich shop, the dry cleaners, the drugstore all said they were hiring for part-time work. But the managers said they wanted reliable workers who would stay beyond the short summer and those who would work weekends and nights, which limited the response.
The jobs pay about $5 an hour, above the minimum wage of $4.25 but not necessarily enough to attract and retain teen-agers, who typically need a car to get to and from work.
"The opportunities have somewhat dried up this summer," said Robert Fanto, guidance counseling chairman at Dulaney High.
The school's "jobs available" bulletin board has about as many listings as last year, "but there is less diversity, fewer jobs that require some sort of skills or ability," Mr. Fanto said. There are lots of yard-work, baby-sitting and fast-food opportunities, but virtually no office or technical jobs employers. More students may skip a summer job to do other things this year, he observed.
The sluggish economy, reduced federal funding and employer caution are some of the reasons for the flagging job market for students.
The hourly minimum wage is 45 cents higher than last year, and the maximum federal fine for a child labor law violation has increased tenfold to $10,000. But they are not considered significant factors in the current Maryland youth employment picture.
"Realistically, all businesses are paying above the minimum wage in this area," said Thomas S. Saquella, president of the Maryland Retail Merchants Association. "If sales were as robust as they were two years ago, there'd be more summer hiring, regardless."
Student jobs considered attractive are quickly filled.
"There's been a much more abundant supply of labor than in past years," said Punkey Foard of Valley View Farms garden centers. The 125 to 150 students employed there this year began working part-time in April and will stay through the fall, he said.
"We're getting a much better part-time employee in the past five years than we did 10 or 15 years ago," he said. They are "much sharper and more responsible."
Ocean City continues to hold its own as the mecca of student job-seekers, who fill more than 10,000 positions in the summer resort businesses.
Even there, however, jobs are filling up sooner, and more youngsters are applying earlier, said Anne FauntLeroy of the city's Chamber of Commerce. A job fair in April drew more than 1,800 high school seniors and college students, compared with only 300 several years ago, she said.
"No one's been complaining loudly about a lack of people, not like last year," Ms. FauntLeroy said. To solve the perennial problem of early depar
tures by summer help, many employers now pay season-end bonuses, she said.
The decline in the work force is mirrored in the steady decline in the number of minors getting state work permits over the past four years. The Maryland Division of Labor and Industry issued almost 99,000 permits, required for workers who are 14 to 17 years old, in 1987. The total was 76,500 last year, and the $H number of permits issued in the first four months of 1991 lags behind the previous year.
Over time, work permits for minors typically follow economic cycles. In 1982, the state issued only 57,500 permits, but the numbers increased each succeeding year until they peaked in 1987.
The number of young workers also has declined. The U.S. Labor Department projects that 440,000 fewer people ages 16 to 24 will be in the summertime work force this year, compared with 1990. That age-group population has been falling since 1980, the department noted.
Businesses that have traditionally hired college student summer interns preparing for professions are also cutting back.
Several large law firms in Baltimore report that they have reduced the number of law student interns by as much as 50 percent this year. Piper & Marbury reduced its summer student corps from 36 to 18. The Sun's newspaper internship for college students was pruned from 12 to eight weeks this summer for economic reasons.