Summer jobs elusive for U.S. teens

Rashad Murphy works at Alabama Adventure, an amusement park, where he operates a wooden roller coaster.

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Kai Ryssdal: Younger workers have been harder hit than most in this recession. Younger as in teenagers. The unemployment rate for 16-to-19 year olds is 29 percent. So college students on summer break have been taking jobs they might normally try to avoid -- like flipping burgers or working the Tilt-A-Whirl for queasy kids. And that means the people who usually get those kinds of jobs aren't.

From Birmingham, Ala., Gigi Douban reports.


Gigi Douban: Rashad Murphy will be a freshman in college this fall, so his summer job search was pretty extensive.

Rashad Murphy: Almost anywhere that took applications. Let's see, like Footlocker, Finish Line, Target, Wal-Mart...

Instead, he ends up here, at Alabama Adventure, an amusement park, where he works a big wooden roller coaster. He gives the safety talk. He locks lap bars. He turns away people who are less than 48 inches tall. The job pays $7.25 an hour, there are no health benefits, and when summer ends, the job ends. Oh, and it's 97 degrees outside.

Even so, Alabama Adventure's job fair in March drew more than 600 people, compared to 250 in years past. Many of those were college students like Murphy, who seem to be edging out foreigners. Overseas workers typically help staff summer hot spots like resorts and rest stops.

Tony Sanders is Alabama Adventure's human resources director. He says last year the park cut its international recruitment program and hired locals instead.

Tony Sanders: It's usually a very successful program, but we wanted to keep it at home.

Others are doing the same. Companies that connect foreign students with American employers report that business is down. From 2007 to 2009, the number of seasonal employees not working on farms has dropped more than 60 percent, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Sanders says the foreign students were great workers, but there were aspects of the program that were a bit cumbersome.

Sanders: Some of the language barriers, and you've got to deal with the end of the year,their W-2s and mailing of information and checks and everything.

There was housing to arrange, transportation. But the overseas students did offer one key benefit -- they arrived in the U.S. early and stayed late. So they were able to work through the end of the season when many here were gearing up for school.

But foreigners aren't the only ones who are being crowded out. High school students are too. For one thing, they arrive on the scene later.

Sanders: Lot of students say, "Oh it's the end of May it's time to get a job." But they're a good month and a half behind at that point.

But teenagers need jobs too, according to Michael Saltsman. He's a research fellow at the Employment Policies Institute.

Michael Saltsman: I think younger teens are missing out on those important skills you learn in a first job -- as far as at amusement park, how to deal with ornery customers; at a restaurant maybe it's how to deal with a shift manager, whether it's how to punch a time card. These are the kind of skills you need to move ahead in the labor force.

And Saltsman says teens that fail to land that first job are worse off in the long term.

Saltsman: And if you do get discouraged, I think you're at risk of being more likely to drop out of high school, to get in legal trouble or to be at risk of lower wages in the future.

And that creates a ripple effect that goes way beyond the water park.

In Birmingham, I'm Gigi Douban for Marketplace.

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