Jobs scarce for teenagers heading into summer

KANSAS CITY, Missouri - School is out at Blue Valley's Center for Advanced Professional Studies, and 18-year-old Zach Block keeps hoping that one of the many resumes he has sent to area companies will land him a summer job.

"The goal is a paying job, but I'm willing to work for free for the experience," said Block, who is heading in the fall to the University of Illinois to major in biomedical engineering.

Block is hardly alone in his quest for summer work. National surveys estimate that only one in four teens who want a summer paycheck will get one this year.

Although only anecdotal evidence is available, it looks as if summer job opportunities for teens in the Kansas City area might be slightly better. But teen after teen locally tells a story of submitting 15 to 20 job applications with no bites.

The private sector hasn't filled the hiring hole left by the loss of federal stimulus funds that had modestly shored up youth employment in the summers of 2009 and 2010. This year, many of those programs -- mostly designed for low-income and at-risk teens -- aren't funded.

Scott Anglemyer, chief executive at Workforce Partnership, a job-finding assistance agency that serves Johnson, Wyandotte and Leavenworth counties, said teen demand is high for summer work.

"But when Congress didn't reappropriate stimulus funds for a summer youth program, we don't have a funded program," Anglemyer said.

There have been some bright notes this year, though. Kansas City's seventh annual Bright Future Employment Fair, held in March, attracted 40 local employers who offered 475 private-sector and 125 public-sector positions.

(The city is continuing to accept teen applicants at for the six-week work experience program.)

And school programs, like the Blue Valley School District one that Block was in, have linked some students up with summer work -- though it's often unpaid.

Block's classmate Sean Weaver is doing an unpaid internship at St. Joseph Medical Center, thanks to a visit to his school by a hospital executive who agreed to a position on the spot.

"It's a foot in the door to help get a paying job eventually," said Weaver, who will be attending Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the fall.

As in past summers, many city and county governments have traditional summer opportunities, such as summer camps, sports programs and lifeguarding, said Mike Garcia, chief human resources officer for Overland Park.

That city is hiring about 300 teens this summer, many of whom signed on as early as February to return to jobs they held last year.

Nabbing a summer job often means applying while the snow flies. But in Overland Park and elsewhere, teen hiring generally remains fluid throughout the summer as the workforce starts and stops at varying times.

Perhaps the biggest teen hirers in the area are Worlds of Fun and Oceans of Fun. Spokesman Brandon Stanley said about 80 percent of their 3,000 seasonal jobs go to teens, and they continue to hire throughout the summer.

"We probably get about 10,000 applications, so the competition is good," Stanley said of the jobs, which start at $7.25 an hour and can go up to $8.25 plus bonuses.

As the overall job market has tightened in the last two years -- with adults vying for many of the jobs once commanded by teenagers -- the competition has intensified, Stanley said.

"They have to come with their A game," Stanley said of the interview process.

A recent study by Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies projected that only 27 percent of U.S. teens will have summer jobs this year. Government statistics indicate that one-third of teens have never held a paying job.

That scarcity of paid work is pushing some young people to look into unpaid work-readiness and job-training programs.

Paul Marksbury, program director of the Youth Volunteer Corps of Greater Kansas City, said he has lots of unpaid opportunities available in the eight-week program, which matches teens with work in nonprofits such as food banks, nature preserves and museums.

"It's hard to recruit when we're competing with paying jobs," Marksbury admitted.

But he said the down economy has helped attract more young people to volunteering.

Eighteen-year-old Courtney Shirley, who has taken business education classes at Raytown South High School, knew the summer job competition would be tough, so she started applying several weeks ago at retail stores.

"I really wanted to work at Target, so after I applied, I called them several times," she said.

She got an interview and agreed to start working before school ended, happy to land an $8-an-hour job that would teach her more than she had learned working in a water park concession stand the last two summers.

"Lots of my friends are still looking," Shirley said. "They're having a harder time finding employers who'll hire them."

Ditto, said Sam Peterson, 19, who just finished his freshman year at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.

"I need a job with at least 25 to 30 hours a week," said the Park Hill South graduate. "I need to make enough to go back to school. I've applied to a lot, but so far, no dice. I'm not completely desperate yet, but I don't like the odds."

Lisa Essig, who owns McDonald's restaurants in Clay County, said she is bringing on five to 10 teens this summer and is glad to have them, even for a short time, because they help fill in for vacationing full-time staffers.

"But there are a lot more older folks getting those positions now," Essig said. "Lots of adults need full-time or part-time jobs to supplement their incomes, and they don't have the school and activities conflicts that teens do."

Essig's best advice to teen job hunters: "Be flexible about when you can work. It won't help to say you don't want to work weekends or nights."

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