May 3, 2012 at 7:36 AM ET
Nick Gentry will be able to celebrate two major accomplishments this month: He’s graduating from high school and, after a very long job search, he has landed his first job.
That Gentry, 18, will be collecting a paycheck makes him a rarity in today's working world.
Only about 25 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds currently are working, a drop of 10 percentage points from just five years ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The percentage of teenagers who have jobs, expressed as the ratio of employment to population, hovered between 40 and 50 percent for much of the 1980s and 1990s. The percentage began dropping about a decade ago, but the declines have been especially steep since the beginning of the Great Recession in late 2007.
With summer approaching and the job market showing signs of improvement, teens could have a better shot at getting hired than they have had in years. But it could take many more years for teens to resume working at pre-recession levels.
The April employment report, due out Friday, will offer more clues into how things will look in the coming months.
Part of the issue is that fewer teens either want to work or think they can get a job. The labor force participation rate, which measures both teens who are working and those actively seeking work, also has fallen sharply since 2000.
The White House pledged on Wednesday to help lower-income youth find summer jobs in a move likely to appeal to younger voters crucial to President Barack Obama's re-election campaign.
The initiative is in partnership with the cities of Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco and is meant to add 110,000 jobs, internships and mentorships to the 180,000 summer work opportunities for 16-24 year olds that Obama has promised to create for 2012.
Still, most teens are facing a job market in which there are fewer positions to be had. What’s more, many believe the jobs that are available are increasingly going to adults who are desperate enough to take a job that might once have gone to a teenager.
Gentry, who lives in Murfreesboro, Tenn., said he’s applied for jobs on and off over the past two years.
He finally got a break this spring when his mother, Brenda Gentry, helped him land a part-time job doing yard work for the company where she works in accounting.
“It was pretty exciting, finally getting one,” Nick said.
He plans to use his paycheck for car expenses and other incidentals and says he’s looking forward to not having to ask his mom for money.
“It’ll feel a lot better …because she works real hard to give us what we have,” he said.
Brenda Gentry’s other son, Wes Kirk, hasn’t been so lucky. Kirk, 16, said he’s applied at retail stores and fast food places, always trying to follow up in person with the manager. But so far, he hasn’t been able to get a break.
“I’ve had them say they’re interested, but no one’s ever called me in for an interview,” he said.
Who does, and doesn’t, work
The job market is unquestionably difficult for all teens, but experts say it’s especially hard for those who may need the money most: Teens from poor families and families in which a parent is out of work.
“It’s the opposite of what everybody thinks,” said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.
Sum said the disparity is partly because many kids get jobs through family and community connections such as parents, neighbors or relatives.
That can also have a ripple effect: The likelihood of working increases significantly once a teen has already held a job, according to his research.
Other research backs up that disparity. Algernon Austin, director of the race, ethnicity and the economy program at the Economic Policy Institute, last year analyzed 2009 data on teens who were not attending school.
He found that 16- to 19- year-olds from poor families, whose income was below the poverty line, were less likely to be working than teens whose families had more money. That was true regardless of race or ethnicity.
“In terms of need, it is backwards,” he said.
The analysis of teens living below the poverty level, just above the poverty level and in middle-class households also found that at every income level, white and Hispanic teens were more likely to be working than black teens.
Austin said low-income and minority teens may not have family connections and role models that can help them land a job. They also may face other obstacles, some as simple as not having access to a car or public transportation to get to work.
“It’s all sort of interconnected – (a) web of disadvantage that makes it difficult to find work,” he said.
‘Nothing like making your own money’
Dominique Plain Bull, 19, landed her first job late last year after her mom helped her connect with a family friend who is a retail store manager. She’s working part-time while attending a community college in Huntsville, Ala., full-time.
Dominique’s mother, Shannon, said she’s glad her daughter found a job and is learning the value of being a good, reliable worker. But she’s also happy that her daughter didn’t work in high school and was instead able to focus on sports and academics.
That’s something Shannon, 35, missed out on because she had Dominique when she was just 15 and started working when she was 16.
“I was kind of wanting her to be a kid, because I wasn’t given the opportunity to have my childhood,” she said.
It can be tiring to work and go to school, but Dominique said she likes her job – and her paycheck.
“There’s nothing like making your own money,” she said.
For some teens who are working, having an entry-level job has provided a valuable life lesson along with a paycheck: It’s taught them what they don’t want to do with the rest of their life.
Moses Goldfarb, 19, didn’t have much trouble landing a job stocking shelves at a grocery store in Seattle in 2009, when he was still in high school. He graduated in 2011 and decided not to go straight to college.
After a year of working, however, he says he regrets that decision and is looking forward to going to school next fall to study film and TV production. A turning point came when he took an unpaid internship last summer working on the television show “Portlandia.”
The hours were long and the pay nonexistent, but he loved going to work every day.
Now, he says, “I want to leave my grocery store and retail days behind me and move on to bigger and better things.”
Reuters contributed to this story.
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