Teens want employment super-sized this summer

June 20, 2000|By Michael Olesker

AT 4:15 yesterday morning, Grace Greene arose from sleep, washed, dressed, bid her mother goodbye and left her home, near Edmondson Avenue in West Baltimore. She caught the light rail. She caught the No. 2 bus. She arrived at the McDonald's on York Road in Towson, as she always does, before 7 o' clock.

She is 39 years old and has followed a similar routine every day for the past 20 years. This makes her an employer's treasure and a modern economic oddity. Also it makes her a hero. Everybody looks to get rich, and Grace Greene seeks modest financial stability. She remembers more anxious times, and lives accordingly. Millions of us pinball from one job to another, and she stands at her cash register, smiling sweetly, handing over the Big Macs, handing over the Egg McMuffins, delighted to meet the public.

The summer arrives, and Gary Richards, manager of this Towson McDonald's, just below the Beltway, sounds the lament of many employers: Where can we find help? Once, there were high school kids tripping over each other for summer jobs at McDonald's.

Now, Richards says, "I can't find people. We used to offer $5.15 an hour to the summer help, but we've upped it to $6. It doesn't matter. The kids from Towson aren't interested, no matter what. I've been here, off and on, for 10 years now. This is the hardest year of all. I draw most of my employees from the inner city. Believe me, you've got to be very dedicated to take the bus all the way out here from the inner city. But that's who I depend on."

Richards says about 80 percent of his customers are white, and about 80 percent of his employees are black.

"I can't get white kids," says Richards, who is black. He sounds genuinely puzzled. "We used to get them in here looking for jobs," he says, "but they don't come in any more. Or, the white kids who work for me during the school year say, `We're going to the beach. See you in September,' and they're gone."

On Sunday, the New York Times had a front-page article headlined, "Summer Work Is Out of Favor With the Young." For the past 10 years, the paper reported, fewer teen-agers and young adults have ventured into the summer work force. Last year, only 62 percent of those Americans between ages 16 and 19 joined the labor force, the lowest figure since the summer of 1965.

The Times says it's because we're rich. It says the country's long economic expansion has allowed increasing numbers of families to finance their kids' summer adventures. For many, that means touring foreign countries. For many others, it means taking summer courses that help their applications for the most competitive colleges, or put them on the right tracks for future careers.

"More biscuits," Gary Richards called out yesterday morning. "Need more biscuits."

"More biscuits coming," a voice called back from across a busy kitchen area.

At 8:30, with the last of the morning's heavy breakfast rush tapering off, Richards' hands did not stop moving. He is 41 years old and last year received one of the Baltimore area's McDonald's manager of the year awards. He arrives at work at 5 in the morning. The place is one of the busiest McDonald's in the metro area. But keeping it staffed is tougher than ever.

"I have some people," says Richards, "who are just wonderful. Derrick Harrison, for example, has worked here for 11 years. Alberta Shirley, 11 years. They're good workers. I never complain about my workers. I've always found, if you treat people right, and let them know you appreciate them, they work hard for you. And, of course, sometimes you have someone like Grace Greene, who is wonderful."

She learned the work ethic when the American economy wasn't all champagne bubbles.

"We don't know what tomorrow brings," she says. "So security is important."

She works the cash register and helps train all newcomers. The morning commute is long, and the pay is not overwhelming, she acknowledges. But the customers are generally nice, and the surroundings aren't bad, and the economy might not always be so healthy. She thinks about the long run.

Today, of course, most people think about the next 10 minutes. Young people, especially. Over the weekend, a man I know, who owns a store near Annapolis, says young people apply for work in his store and expect starting salaries of $40,000.

"What world do they live in?" he asked.

Well, it's a world in which they've never heard of hard times. They've grown up hearing about million-dollar ballplayers who consider themselves such paupers that they strike every few years; about instant Internet millionaire venture capitalists; about an economy offering endless possibilities, so why should anyone settle for drudgery of any form?

It's summer in America, so let's party. They're cooking the food right now, at the places like McDonald's. If only they can find enough people, somewhere in this glorious economy, who want to serve it instead of heading for the beach.

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