Finding work is tough job

Summer: Baltimore-area teens face growing competition from seniors and unemployed adults.

May 13, 2004|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

Thomas Booker, 17, has been looking for a summer job for months. He has applied to McDonald's, Taco Bell and other fast-food restaurants. He has followed up with phone calls. He has sought news about openings from friends who do have jobs. Still, he is unemployed.

So yesterday, he put on a suit and tie - typically reserved for church on Sundays and school presentations - and headed to a job fair in Baltimore City.

He and about 400 other teen-agers.

"I started in December looking for jobs, and I still haven't gotten one yet," Booker said. "In a way, this is my last resort."

The teen job market is expected to be even tighter this summer than last, when fewer teens worked than in any year since the Korean War and the unemployment rate for youths was the highest in a decade.

This summer, teens will still find themselves competing with laid-off adults and seniors who are back in the job market. They also are being squeezed out by immigrants with little formal education and recent college graduates with ample education but few prospects.

Meanwhile, funds for summer jobs programs are drying up.

"There aren't as many employers who are looking for youth workers," said Alice Cole, director of career development services for the Baltimore Mayor's Office of Employment Development. "The youth workers that come to us are competing with returning college students, they're competing with senior citizens who are also back in the job market, and they're competing with employees who are experiencing downsizing."

Fierce competition

Many unemployed adults are now willing to take jobs that before would have fallen to teens. Also, many immigrants under the age of 30 who lack more than a high school education compete with teens for entry-level work in fast-food, construction or grocery stores, said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston.

"You've got these four groups that are much more likely to be competing for jobs that four years ago, with the exception for immigrants, wouldn't be there," said Sum, who follows youth labor markets.

The unemployment rate for people ages 16 to 24 grew to 13.3 percent last July - nearly 40 percent higher than in 2000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And while the number of people in that age bracket is growing, fewer of them are participating in the labor force each year. Only 67.3 percent of youths were working or looking for work last year, down from 71.9 percent in 2000. Meanwhile, the labor force participation rate for those 65 and older grew to 14 percent last year, up from 12.9 percent in 2000.

The tight market for teen employment has been compounded by the fact that public money that used to pay for summer youth jobs programs is disappearing.

YouthWorks, a Baltimore City program that places youths in summer jobs, is working to gain donations from local foundations and businesses since the federal aid it relied on dried up several years ago. Today, organizers are waiting to hear whether the city and other organizations will help cover a $2 million shortfall.

Even as the money dwindles, the number of students taking part in the program is growing, said Cole of the Mayor's Office of Employment Development, which runs YouthWorks.

This year, more than 6,000 have signed up for the summer jobs program, with two weeks left to register, up from about 4,700 last year. An additional 3,000 teens involved in year-round work programs through Cole's office might also need summer jobs.

Yesterday, about 65 employers interviewed applicants at the YouthWorks job fair at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. Hundreds of students, clad in business attire, filled out job applications and moved through rows of tables, some with lines four or five people deep. Students waited for a chance to interview at companies such as Comcast Corp., United Parcel Service, CVS and Fuddruckers restaurant.

Bert Hall Jr., a diversity and human resources specialist for the National Aquarium in Baltimore, was looking to hire about a dozen workers for this summer. By 11:15 a.m., he had interviewed 13 teens.

"I'm doing anything I can to get a job and help out [my family]," said Candace Lewis, 17, one of the teens who interviewed with Hall. Since moving to Baltimore from Washington last autumn, she said, she has looked for work without success at clothing stores, department stores, "anywhere I can."

Nationwide, youths are not optimistic about their job prospects. About 43 percent of people ages 14 to 24 said they are expecting it to be very difficult to find a summer job, while 35 percent said it would be somewhat difficult.

About 16 percent said they weren't sure how the search would be, while 7 percent said they did not expect it to be tough, according to a nonscientific survey conducted by SnagAJob.com, a Richmond-based job search Web site.

In Maryland, about 48 of every 100 youths worked during the summer of 2003, above the national average of 42 percent.

Jobs are out there

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