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Summertime, and jobs don't come easy

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 10, 2010 - Late spring, Erin Fagan, a senior at St. Joseph's Academy, sent out applications for more than 10 summer jobs, everything from Claire's to the Smokehouse Market. She had two interviews -- and then nothing. By now, she has pretty much given up hope of finding work this summer.

Her only friends who have jobs are lifeguards, but they were certified a few years. Erin isn't confident about her swimming abilities, leaving her without any real prospects.

"I don't really have any work experience, so they are going to hire someone with more experience. There are just so many people applying," she said.

Michael Holmes, executive director of SLATE, the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment, said that this is "one of the worst times for (teenagers) to find employment. Employment for teens has been a problem for years, and on top of that there is the recession."

Urban Force, one of SLATE's previous programs for youth employment, provided 2,043 jobs last year for teens who are traditionally hard to place in jobs, such as dropouts. This year, federal money ran out for the program. Even in the unlikely event that the Senate resuscitates the program, Holmes pointed out that it's already too late for this year's batch of teenagers seeking summer employment. Summer has already begun.

SLATE does still have a year-round program for teenagers seeking employment, but it doesn't provide work for teens looking for summer seasonal work.

Teenagers between 16 and 19 are competing for summer jobs not only with recent college graduates but also the returning baby boomer generation of 55 and older. According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, overall employment for teenagers in food preparation and serving, sales and related work, and office and administrative support fell 2.3 million from 2000 to 2009, while baby boomer employment in this area increased by 1.1 million.

As Holmes said, "I've got people who have never missed a day of work in their life who are laid off, and they are taking anything to bring money to their families." With the older workers taking jobs that typically would go to younger workers, teenagers are left with few options.

Local hot spots for summer jobs cite a definite increase in applications and a higher return rate of previous summer staff.

Travis Dillon, general manager at Ted Drewes, said that about 20 percent more people asked for jobs at the popular custard stand this summer over last. Many of his current staff are college students who came back this year for a job they knew they had instead of pursuing an internship or a job in their field of study.

At the Muny, the nation's largest outdoor theater, Director of Finance Jim Kerber said, "In the last three years, the number of applications has definitely gone up."

Typically, the Muny hires about 600 people a summer. But more than 86 percent of its summer staff returns each year, so the Muny hires few new workers. With the current job market and scarcity of internships, return rates to the Muny may rise even higher.

Some students are seeking alternatives to the job search. The number of people taking summer classes at St. Louis Community Colleges is 15,532, up 11.3 percent from last year according to STLCC's Director of Communications Pat Matreci. Others, like Fagan, decide to shadow job professionals or volunteer.

Although such alternatives give teens a way to spend their summers, they don't solve the basic problem: When it comes to summer jobs, teenagers are at the bottom of the food chain. As Holmes said, "We have nothing for that group this year. We have nothing for these kids."

Lauren Weber, a student at Georgetown, is an intern at the Beacon. 

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