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Making Summer Jobs Work For Teens


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. If you're a teenager looking for a summer job, we'll start with the bad news: The last two years were the worst in history; this summer could be even worse. For one thing, the competition is ferocious. College students, college grads, even laid-off older workers are applying to get work as lifeguards, to flip burgers or staff the kiosk at the local mall.

And while the economy's been pretty bad these past few years, it looks as if the precipitous jobs in summer jobs started decades ago and shows no signs of turning around. But given that dreary context, there are shafts of light amid the gloom: Hundreds of thousands of kids do find summer work, many in places you might not expect, and there are productive alternatives.

If you've landed a summer job, what worked? If you're hiring summer help, or if you used to, what changed? 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, what's at stake for unions in tomorrow recall election in Wisconsin? But first, summer jobs. And let's see if we can start with a caller. Let's go to Renee(ph), Renee's on the line with us from San Antonio.


CONAN: Are you looking for summer work, or are you an employer?

RENEE: I'm an employer that hires kids out at Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio.

CONAN: And are you looking for kids this summer?

RENEE: We are looking. We're always hiring kids for the summer in a lot of different departments, but consistency in finding kids who actually keep the jobs through the summer is definitely the hardest part.

CONAN: And is there competition, as we suggested, from older kids and indeed from people who have been out of work for a little while?

RENEE: There is definitely competition. Right now we're seeing a lot of older applicants applying, which kind of does kick kids to the curb because we definitely take older applicants who have an open availability before we take kids.

CONAN: And why is that?

RENEE: They're just consistently, from what we've seen, we have a better retention rate with them. They don't quit once school is back in session. So it's just an easier hire for us, and it's a better retention rate with older applicants.

CONAN: But is there - every summer, I assume your business picks up precisely because there's no school.


CONAN: And so the summer hires, there's a need every summer for extra workers.


CONAN: And even those summer jobs, you're saying older workers are applying for those, too?

RENEE: Yes, we've seen that, especially last summer, the summer before. We've definitely seen a bigger pickup with older applicants.

CONAN: All right, Renee, thanks very much, and good luck with this summer's crop.

RENEE: You're welcome, thank you.

CONAN: Joining us now is Andrew Sum, a professor of economics and director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, co-author of the report "The Dismal State of the Nation's Teen Summer Job Market, 2009-2011 and the Outlook for the Summer of 2012," the report from which we cribbed many of our facts. And Andrew Sum, nice of you to be with us.

ANDREW SUM: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And before we spread more gloom, there are some areas that are more positive?

SUM: Well there are and are both industries and states, as well, because a lot, surprisingly, depends on - your ability to get a summer job depends upon, you know, where you live. So if you happen to live in the right state, large parts of the rural Midwest and the Rocky Mountain regions, you know, teenagers have been - continue to be employed at high rates.

But in our biggest states and our biggest cities, Neal, it's a radically different situation. So both geographically, income-wise and geographically within state-wise, there is tremendous variability in terms of young people's ability to get jobs.

But just as a little follow-up to the previous caller, Neal, there's a little story I think that our facts back this up. If you and I go back 40 years now, because I've been tracking this, you know, to see what was happening, we were testifying on it before the Congress a few years back on this, but if you and I went back to the late '60s, '70s, even through the early '80s, what you would find is that during the summer, there was what we would call a large summer job market.

That is, employers from June to August would end up hiring, on average, about four percent more workers than they had in the late spring and winter of that year. So that you and come out of school and are looking for a job, you and I would find that there are plenty of job opportunities that are available to you.

You know, like I look back, I mean, I had many different jobs before I took my first teen job, but I remember my first teen job was working in the summer at the grocery store, you know, doing the bagging, the checkout counter, et cetera. And a lot of the work I was doing, Neal, was helping substitute for people that were, you know, away for the summer for vacation.

And when I spent my years working at U.S. Steel, five years, every summer, I'd come out of high school, come out of college, go work at U.S. Steel, we would get summer employment year-round - I mean, all summer to help fill in that regard. So - and by the way, Neal, the size of this, the last thing on here, the size of this, though, is tremendous because we went from, remember I said four percent of all jobs.

Remember today that would be like six million. In the last four years, Neal, the summer job market is under one percent difference.

CONAN: So that's a tremendous difference, and it suggests that not merely that times are tough, but there's been a structural change.

SUM: Yes, a structural change of overwhelming magnitude, and it got a lot worse in the last four years because - you know, and by the way, it wasn't very good in the early part of the last decade, either. But when we had so many individuals lose their jobs, we're talking about hiring the older worker, and a lot of older workers came back in, and they'll tell you, you know, quite readily, that a lot of them only want to, you know, supplement their 401(k) or their pension, they want a, you know, short-term job.

And what we do find is that a lot of the jobs that also normally would have gone to teens are now being occupied by all the groups we just described, with 55- to 70-year-olds being a large part of that.

CONAN: You mentioned location, as with many other things, plays an important part in the ability to get a job. Income level also?

SUM: Yes, extraordinary, Neal. This is the thing that I think most people always find surprising, but the likelihood that you and I work during the summer actually rises with the level of our family income until you get well over 150,000. Kids from low-income families, I'm talking about incomes, you know, families with incomes under 20,000, 25,000, work at the lowest rates by far so that the gap between low-income, particularly low-income minority youth and upper-middle-income youth is about four to one, Neal, four times better chance of getting a job if you happen to live in an upper-middle-income family.

And so by the way, also true for many black and Hispanic youths but especially white youths, and you're - the likelihood of you finding a job goes down dramatically when you're low-income. And part of the reason why that's gotten a lot worse in recent years, Neal, is we used to have these large-scale summer jobs programs to put kids to work. The federal government put up money, gives state and local governments money, let's go hire young people, put them to work in the summer. We got rid of that program in 2000. President Obama brought it back with the stimulus in 2009. We had about 420,000 kids work that summer. Congress would not approve it in 2010-2011.

So a number of the jobs that used to be available for young people are also no longer there. So on top of the private-sector demand, Neal, you've also got this substantial decline in, you know, in public, nonprofit sector demand for young people.

CONAN: We also tend to think of summer jobs, you know, fast food industry, entertainment, we had the caller from Six Flags, and retail. Are those still the places where the jobs are?

SUM: Yeah, most teenagers still depend on three sectors, including two of the three - in fact all three of the ones you just described, the entertainment, arts, recreation, retail, trade and fast food, accommodations and food service - will hire about seven out of every 10 young people. And teenagers, unfortunately though, have been largely thrown out of, Neal, finance, insurance, professional services, construction, manufacturing, utilities, transportation. It is very rare that you will find a young person working in those sectors today just relative to just 10 years ago.

So we're not only, you know, reducing the number of jobs, but we're confining our young people to smaller and smaller sectors with less exposure to what, you know, what jobs really take to do. And I think that does us all a great disservice because kids don't get the right, you know, soft skills that you want your employees to bring to the job.

They don't get a sense of what people really do on jobs. So they're making career choices without knowing more about it. And the last thing that I think is really important, which is the role of having young people become more exposed to adult roles and working with adults in their teenage years so that you could get that interaction, which I think is crucial, rather than having teens spend all their summer in the youth culture, which doesn't build the types of skills or the types of attitudes that we want out our future workforce.

CONAN: Andrew Sum, thanks very much for your time.

SUM: You're welcome.

CONAN: Andrew Sum, professor of economics and director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. Let's get another caller in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. And let's go to Derrick(ph), Derrick's with us from Salt Lake. Derrick, are you there? Derrick has apparently left us. Let's see if we can go instead to - this is Mandy(ph), Mandy with us from Jacksonville.

MANDY: Hello?

CONAN: Mandy, you're on the air, go ahead, please.

MANDY: Oh OK, well, I'm Mandy. I recently - I'm in college right now, home from school, and I was looking for a job. Like originally, I just started, like, did the normal thing where I went to the mall, going like store-to-store and asking if they, like, were hiring anything, like trying to get jobs at the grocery store. And I just wasn't finding anything.

So then after a while, I just got desperate, and I went on, like, probably around like one in the morning, went onto like monster.com and Craigslist and just started, like, posting to the most random jobs, like even things like - stuff that I didn't really think that I would be qualified for or just completely out-there stuff, not what you would typically consider a summer job.

And I ended up, like, that's how I found - I have a job right now working - I do like direct sales for companies, trying to sell them office supplies.

CONAN: So the shot-in-the-dark principle.

MANDY: Yeah, also, like, it kind of worked. I found like a job, like, I really do enjoy my job, and I'm working. I'm the youngest person to, like, work with them, but I really like it. I feel like I'm getting a lot of experience, and I'm doing a job that I feel like looks a lot better on my resume than the normal retail job.

And I had had - a couple years ago, I'd had a retail job, where I worked in a store, and I got hired and everything, but then there were, like, four straight weeks where I'd call and ask my hours, and they just didn't give me any hours because they were, like, they were so limited in their work.

CONAN: So this has worked out a lot better for you. And are you getting decent money?

MANDY: It's like - it's a summer job. It's commission-based, so it's all based on, like, my - how hard I work, which I sort of like. I'm mostly taking it as, like, a learning experience more than anything because I still am, like, being supported by my family. So it's sort of like additional money. And I like it because I'm learning a lot, and I'm getting, like...

CONAN: All right, Mandy, thanks very much for your time, we appreciate the call. We're talking about summer jobs. If you got one this year, how'd you do it? Or if you're an employer looking for summer help, what has changed? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. In the years following World War II, more than half of U.S. teenagers spent their summers working as soda jerks, movie theater ushers and elevator operators, and sure, some of the jobs kids did back in the '40s and '50s have gone the way of the girdle, but there's more to it.

These days, summer hiring falls short of 30 percent, a post-World War II low. Of course, the drop is due in part to the incredibly tight job market even for low-wage jobs, but it's also part of a larger trend of companies cutting seasonal hiring in favor of employees who can work year-round.

If you've landed a summer job, what worked? And if you're looking for summer help, or you used to, what's changed? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can chime in on Twitter, find us @totn. And joining us now is William Holland, he's the author of "Cracking the New Job Market: The Seven Rules for Getting Hired in Any Economy." He's with us from studios at Norfolk Public Radio in Williamsburg, Virginia. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

WILLIAM HOLLAND: Well, it's good to be back, Neal, thank you.

CONAN: And is there any rule for somebody looking for a summer job? What kind of - how do you make yourself look attractive to an employer?

HOLLAND: Well, in fact, that isn't - that's the trick, to make yourself attractive. But let me begin the conversation by suggesting to you that the entire job market is in the process of a very dramatic restructuring. And a part of what's happening is that there's a new job market out there. And to participate requires something different and something new, and I think that's what people are going to have to get used to. And the fact that our Congress can't get itself together to provide some transition assistance to this new economy is just really unfortunate.

CONAN: Well, I wanted to read you this email we have from Pamela in Corvallis, Oregon: My teenage daughter submitted dozens of applications for summer jobs around town. She's continually told she does not have the experience they're looking for, so they're not going to hire her. How is she supposed to get work experience, whether it's retail, restaurant, customer service or anything, if no one will give her an opportunity?

HOLLAND: Well, the answer to that one is pretty easy because you don't need to use that as an excuse anymore. When you go to someone, and they say, you know, gee, we really want someone with experience, you should be able to say, you know, they told me that last summer, and so what I did is I went out and I volunteered, and I made sure that I developed the skills that you are looking for and that you will find useful if you hire me this summer.

And I would suggest that in that kind of market, you really do want to get into a volunteer position.

CONAN: And what kind of volunteer positions are you talking about?

HOLLAND: Almost any position that you have an opportunity to make a contribution to the organization. And that could be at your local church, it could be at the local hospital. There are plenty of opportunities there. That could be at any of the not-for-profits. There are - just almost anyplace that uses volunteer support or does public service can use volunteer help.

CONAN: And how early, how young should you start out?

HOLLAND: I don't want to be glib, but, you know, outside of early, the answer is as early as possible. In fact, one of the notes I have here to myself is for people who are looking for a job, the trick to this thing is to in fact start early. And if you start early in terms of a summer job or a specific summer job or early in terms of your own chronological age, the earlier you start, to a certain extent, the better.

CONAN: And I just want to get back to volunteering for just a moment. There are a lot of people who will say wait a minute, this is a rip-off. I'm getting paid nothing, I'm going to work every day, and I could be having a good time with my friends. Sure, if I'm getting paid, that's one thing, but volunteering?

HOLLAND: Well, that's a part of the reality of the new job market. If you see community service as a rip-off, you've got a long row to hoe in terms of fitting in to this economy, because the truth of the matter is public service still has a certain cache and ring to it that will not only help you help your community, but it'll also help you help yourself.

And so I would encourage people who have that kind of attitude to get a little bit of an adjustment. I encourage them to go to some of the agencies that provide public service and look at the tremendous work that they do in terms of helping the community. And that notion of being out there and helping the community is something that deserves their attention, if for no other reason than it will help us become a better place in which to live.

CONAN: Let's go next to Jonah, Jonah with us from Centerville in Ohio.



JONAH: What kind of questions do you have for me today?

CONAN: Are you looking for a summer job? Did you find one?

JONAH: I did find a summer job this year, actually, and it wasn't too difficult, in my opinion.

CONAN: And what kind of industry are you in?

JONAH: Well, I work at a pet supply store, and they pay minimum wage, and it's just a regular job, pretty much.

CONAN: And what was the key to getting the job, do you think?

JONAH: Well, the key, I believe, that was the most important factor was presentation, just presentation at the interview.

CONAN: And by that you mean deportment, your dress?

JONAH: That, the way you dress is certainly, I believe, one of the aspects that got me hired, also how you respond to the questions that are asked.

CONAN: What do you mean by that?

JONAH: Well, you can - a lot of people, they don't, I guess, the difference between the people that get hired and don't get hired is just the amount of effort that they necessarily want to put into the interview. Like, when someone asks you a question, a potential boss asks you a question, you know, you want to basically formulate a response that's, I believe, as responsible and mature as you can make it sound and basically sell yourself.

CONAN: All right, well Jonah, good luck in the pet store this summer.

JONAH: Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Here's an - you were about to say something, I'm sorry, Bill?

HOLLAND: Yeah, Neal, I'd like to respond to that because the caller is actually onto something. On the way over here, I did a little survey of some of the local establishments, restaurants and the like, who may be hiring for the summer. And I asked them the question: When you're hiring, what are you looking for, for people who are applying for jobs?

And while this is very unscientific, I thought the responses resonated with a lot of what the last caller had to say. The first and most frequent thing I heard is that they really tend to hire people who are referrals from a trusted source. But down the line, they want someone who is respectful and polite, someone who is reliable, that is they show up to work, and they show up on time. They have good references.

They're a self-starter, that is someone who when there's 10 minutes left to go in the shift, they don't just stop and watch the clock go by. That's the time for them to go out and maybe clean a couple tables before they leave. And they're looking for someone whose appearance is neat and someone who is respectful.

CONAN: Let's go to Nicole, Nicole with us from Bakersfield.

NICOLE: Hi, I completely agree with what Bill was just saying. That's my biggest concern. We interview about 150 kids every summer from our local high schools to place in our busy corporation, whether it be from filing to answering phones to maintenance that might - or maintenance around the building, to work one-on-one with other staff members. And we just cannot find people who possess the basic skills to work in an office.

It's absolutely amazing. Kids come into work with hickeys and piercings and tattoos, wrinkled clothing, chipped nail polish, foul language. These people come from school, recommended by counselors, and they - we give them a test before they start. They don't even obtain the basic grammatical skills to put together an email.

I mean, it's really disheartening because out of 150 kids, we have about three that we can keep. So I don't think that the job market - because we've been doing this, my company, for the past 15 years. But we used to have kids, out of 150, we could keep say 50, 75, and this year it's down to three.

CONAN: Down to three. So what do you do to make up the difference?

NICOLE: We just hire people that have experience, or we go to the community colleges, and we do internship programs there.

CONAN: And at the interview process, do you point out to these kids - I mean, clearly they should have learned it before then, but point out that, you know, there are certain rules around here?

NICOLE: They know that when they come in. They're given things from their school, a packet saying what they can and can't do. It's like there's an absolute disregard for anything that's written on paper. It's no authority, we're not going to abide by these rules, but we want you to pay us at the same time.

And there's also this sense of instant gratification. Like, I don't feel like coming to work, so I'm not going to. So I'm going to leave you in a boat, and you're going to have to sail this ship on your own. There's no teamwork there. I believe it starts at home. That's a lot of our problem.

And I know that people say minorities have trouble getting work. We only interview minorities, and the problem is, is that they don't have the basic skills to - I mean, even faxing and emailing, answering phone calls, things like that are - we struggle so much with that that literally there are three children that are going to work on our summer program this year.

CONAN: Well, Nicole, good luck, and better luck next year.

NICOLE: Thank you.

HOLLAND: Let me chip into that, Neal, if I could.

CONAN: Yeah, go ahead.

HOLLAND: And I'm not making excuses by any stretch of the imagination, but I've got to tell you, being poor is tough. And when someone comes and they don't have the basic skills, the question is, what are we going to do as a general society, to help them develop those skills? What kind of feedback mechanisms are we providing to the schools to say, let's talk about the kids you just sent us, and what can we do to put in place programs and opportunities - and that goes back to Congress - so that these kids can begin to get some experiences and develop those skills?

Because I've got to tell you, even the kids coming out of college today sometimes don't have the skill sets that we're talking about. And if you talk to the CEOs and talk to the recruiters, they cannot get students of all races who have basic interpersonal and interviewing skills and they can't get them to demonstrate that.

So it would be an error to think that this is just, quote, "a minority problem." It is a more general problem than that, and I think we have a whole generation of kids who are coming out, who are not only downwardly mobile, but they are going to be very surprised if their degrees don't get them what they were promised when they first went to college.

CONAN: I just wanted to read a couple of emails to suggest that this is all not gloom and doom. Barbara(ph) in St. Louis: I have hired a college student to work as our full-time nanny this summer rather than send my two boys to camp. She comes to our home every morning, Monday through Friday, 8:00 to 4:00. She's amazing. She worked for us part time last summer, and I was so determined to get her full time this summer. We offered her a job in February at $400 a week. I can't wait for the day when I write her a professional recommendation or serve as a reference for her. There are many families who would make a similar summer hire if they had any idea where to find these great, responsible, hardworking young people to make their kids' summer months memorable, fun and safe.

And this from Jennifer in Ohio: My daughter's worked for a local amusement park for the last four years. It's been her only job. In those four years she's been an associate, an assistant supervisor, a location supervisor, and this year an area supervisor. She has a better work resume than most of the adults I know. She works 50 to 60 hours a week, but loves where she works. She manages both young adults and adults twice her age. If young people are lucky enough to live near one of these amusement parks, they can be a great place to learn real-world skills while still having fun at work.

We're talking about the summer job market for teenagers. Our guest is William Holland, author of "Cracking the New Job Market: The 7 Rules for Getting Hired in Any Economy." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And we'll go to Mary, Mary with us from Charlotte.


CONAN: Hi, Mary.

MARY: I'm looking at this from a little bit different perspective as I'm listening to it. We have a 14-year-old daughter and I'm looking ahead to when she's in high - well, in her later years of high school and in college. And so we have started now hopefully preparing her for the job - summer job market.

We signed her up for a volunteer program at our local science center, and they're actually doing the training and - the training for the job. And she'll volunteer this summer and actually get high school credit for it next year, this coming school year. And then I've also - we've - she's also joined a local swim team, and in doing so we told her that this may dovetail right into going into being a lifeguard. So we've encouraged her to think about that and to take, you know, taking the course to be a lifeguard in the future.

And she's taken (unintelligible) for the last several years. And I said - I've already had her at a couple of Christmas parties last year, and I said this would be a great way to make money as you get older. So we're already trying to be proactive now, seeing that the market has changed so tremendously over these last years that we want to help prepare her. So, now, whether that will work out, I'll let you know in a few years. But...

CONAN: OK. But it sounds like you're on the right - does your daughter's school have a public service requirement?

MARY: Well, it's not a requirement. We just happen to find out that she - they did have a program that we could contact the counselor of the school. And they worked with several organizations in our area, and they happened to work with the science - our local science center, and she's very interested in science. And so the two have worked together, the two organizations, and she now just had her orientation last week to be a volunteer.

And I told her that, you know, this would be a great thing for you to do not only for the high school - the credit in high school, but also, you know, you're going to work there a few years and if you show that you can - you know, how to be responsible with these children that are in these little summer camps and - because that's what she'll be doing is working with younger children and helping the teachers in these summer camps at the science center - I said, you know, down the road this could very easily lead to employment if you, you know, show that you are responsible enough to do this. So they're helping train her, you know, for a job, I think.

CONAN: All right. Mary, we wish her the best of luck, and it sounds like it's an interesting path. Here's an - a tweet, rather, from Meredith: I utilized my college's career website and networking within my major to ultimately gain a paid summer internship in my major.

And that's another of the alternatives available. Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Lexie(ph), and Lexie is with us from Holland, Michigan.

LEXIE: Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Lexie.

LEXIE: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I really admire your show.

CONAN: Thanks.

LEXIE: I was - I'm basically a textbook definition of what you call, you know, the summer job candidate. I'm from the Midwest. I'm in the recreation sector, I suppose, and I teach sailing in the summer. And now I realize I'm really lucky to have this job.

But what really disheartens me is that my teacher told me when they were in school back in the '50s and '60s, they were able to use their summer jobs to fund their educations. But I'm looking at going to American University in D.C. near you, and I can't afford it. It's impossible to pay for. And my summer job doesn't even come close to it, and I'm really disheartened by that.

CONAN: Well, the price of college has escalated a little bit since people went to colleges back in the '50s and '60s.

LEXIE: Of course.

CONAN: And AU is one of the - I believe it's one of the more expensive schools.


CONAN: And so are you hoping to continue, though, summers teaching sailing? That's a lot of fun as well.

LEXIE: Yeah. I enjoy my job, and I make actually a very decent wage at it, and I hope to keep doing it. But I just wish that, you know, even though this job market isn't enough as it is for teenagers in the summer, I wish that we had better-paying jobs because it's really hard to, you know, try to jump out into the world. We may not have the experience necessary, but a lot of it is because there's no way to get there.

CONAN: I understand. Good luck, Lexie, with the sailing, and we'll look for you in Washington, D.C. and America University.

LEXIE: Thank you so much. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Thank you very much. And William Holland, we just a few seconds left, but experience like that, you're not going to be able to pay for college with a summer job. It's just not going to happen.

HOLLAND: You're not - that's right. You're not going to come close. And that's why some of the kids in some of the neighborhoods here have moved into the handyman business, so to speak, and these are kids who are very industrious, they've set up their own business. And they need to make more than what the summer jobs that they traditionally go after are going to get. And these guys are so good. I got a funny feeling they're going to make more money this summer than they probably will the first year after they graduate. But you know, you need to be industrious and get out there, and it's difficult. But keep the faith.

CONAN: Bill, thanks very much for your time. Bill Holland is the author of "Cracking the New Job Market." Stay with us. We'll be talking about Wisconsin. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.