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Teens find competition for summer jobs from an unlikely source -- adults

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 9, 2009 - Holly Edwards has her summer plans set: When she's not taking classes at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, she'll be working at the student fitness center.

But some of her friends haven't been as fortunate in seeking summer employment. "I've heard they haven't had much luck," said Edwards, a 19-year-old freshman from Bethalto, Ill. "They're kind of worried."

Some area businesses and agencies are not only reporting more summer job-seekers but also older applicants.

Elizabeth Lehnerer of the Collinsville Area Recreation District said her office has already received "a ton" of applications from prospective summer employees.

"I've been surprised by the number of people, but that's the kind of times we're in right now," she said.

Lehnerer explained that while high school and college students still make up a significant portion of the recreation district's employment pool, she has seen an increase in adults applying for seasonal jobs -- which she attributes to the economic downturn.

"It's a very tense time for people who are looking for work," she said.

Travis Dillon, general manager at Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, said the business has heard from more applicants than usual this year, an increase driven by more adults. At the same time, he said, the economy has not affected custard sales.

Dillon explained that many of Ted Drewes' employees are high-school age, so the number of new employees fluctuates depending on how many are graduating. This year, more former employees stayed on than usual.

"It just comes in cycles," he said.

Some seasonal businesses say they haven't noted a difference in summer job applicants.

Barb Schultz, plant manager at Haegele Nursery and Garden Center in south St. Louis County, said the business is not currently hiring -- but that is typical for the nursery at this time of year. And the number of inquiries has remained stable.

"It's still early in the season, so once the jobs start picking up ...  [the owner] will look for more help," Schultz said. "But right now, the jobs are fine for the men we have working here."

At the Garden Kingdom, a nursery and landscaping business in Glen Carbon, store manager Jack Carr said that 16 to 20 employees, mostly adults, are usually hired for the season. While the number of applications is stable, the pool has changed.

"Right now, it's looking like an average year," Carr said, "but we've got a lot of older applicants coming in and looking for jobs."

'They want this job'

Lehnerer said she has noticed a shift in the mood of job applicants at the Collinsville recreation district, regardless of their ages.

"They want this job, and the indication I'm getting from the calls we're getting is that they can't wait," she said.

Amanda Morgan, human resources manager for Eckert's Orchards, said the Belleville-based company has received more early applications than in most years, and she expects them to continue arriving as the school year nears its end.

She said an increase in the Illinois state minimum wage to $8 an hour on July 1, is "a little hard to swallow" for Eckert's, but about 150 employees would be hired, as usual.

"We still need the people here working because we still have the large volume of customers coming in," Morgan said.

Emily Bates, director of human resources for the city of Edwardsville, said that in addition to a few engineering interns, the city hires seasonal employees for parks and recreation positions. She expects no change in the number of employees hired for the summer in such jobs as umpires, concession and field maintenance workers.

"As long as we have that need from citizens -- residents signing up for [recreation] programs -- we have to have the staff," Bates said

Larry Smith, president and general manager of Raging Rivers in Grafton, said that recent hikes in the minimum wage have led the company to bump up ticket prices to maintain a full staff. Although a downturn in the economy may be a burden for some businesses, Smith speculated the opposite could hold true for the water park.

"It's a question we ask ourselves every day," Smith said. "There's a chance it could impact us negatively, but we're thinking with what we've seen over the course of the 20 years we've been here ... it would appear that our attendance could even, conceivably, be up this year."

Lehnerer offered a similar prediction for Splash City, Collinsville's water park, noting that more people might stay at home for vacations.

"We kind of saw that with the change in gas prices last year; I think maybe that's going to carry over to this summer," she said.

Megan McClure is a mass communications student at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. 

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