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Teens face stiff competition in the search for a summer job

Students and young graduates attend a job fair.

Danielle Johnson and Domisi Paraham get ready to attend a job search workshop.

Last time I visited the drive-thru at my favorite fast food chain, which I'll decline to name, the girl counting my change at the cashier window wasn't a girl at all. She was a middle-aged woman. That kind of gig used to be a typical summer job for teenagers. But the jobless rate for teens in this country is hovering around 26 percent right now. And last year two-thirds of businesses didn't hire any young people for summer jobs. So what's a high school or college kid to do?

18-year-old Danielle Johnson of Lancaster, Calif., is still trying to figure that out. I met her in Los Angeles outside a job search workshop.

"Life for a teenager and getting a good job starting off is kind of hard. It's like a battlefield," says Johnson.

She's applied for a handful of jobs -- including a pizza place, movie theater, McDonald's and KFC without any luck. Her friend, Domisi Paraham, was also in line for the jobs workshop. He's resorted to volunteering.

"I volunteer at the Los Angeles Cancer Research center. I also volunteer for my step-father. He works in plumbing," says Paraham.

But he hasn't had any paid jobs yet. And he's already 20. Domisi is convinced what it really takes to get a job nowadays is being "connected."

"It's all about who you know because when you go on the Internet you're basically -- you're not a face, you're just a sheet of paper," he says.

So, maybe Danielle's battlefield analogy isn't so far-fetched. Not only do these kids have to stand out among hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people applying over the Internet, but they're often competing with folks who lost jobs during the recession who may have years of work experience and real resumes.

"It is very difficult to get a job without having an awesome resume," says Kelly Sanchez, an instructor at the job search workshop. Sanchez asks the group if they know about scannable resumes. Apparently they need one. If you don't know what I'm talking about -- Google it, you should. And then they talk etiquette. Don't use an email address with silly nicknames or slang. Clean up your Facebook page: no cursing, no drunken party pictures. Dress conservatively for interviews. Hide the tatoos. No cleavage, no saggy pants. After all, Sanchez says, those older workers they're up against for the job, they know the rules. And you can be darn sure they'll wear a belt with their pants.

"The system is now designed to weed people out. There's so many people looking for work. So the minute that there's a spelling error, they're not prepared, they show up late, they're calling the business asking for directions -- those sorts of things, you're done. They have to have all of their T's crossed and their I's dotted and to stand out," says Sanchez.

But here's the thing: these kids are also under pressure to stand out to colleges. And that can mean spending your summers doing things that help boost your test scores or buff up your academic resume. David Rattray is senior vice president of Education and Workforce Development with the L.A. Chamber of Commerce. He gets big employers like Wells Fargo and the grocery chain Ralph's to hire at-risk teens in Los Angeles.

"I think we're still suffering from sort of this intense sense that academic excellence is the only ticket to getting into a good college and that colleges are starting to increasingly de-prioritize SAT scores and kind of academic grades only and look more to a well-rounded, young person. So they're starting to value work experience more," says Rattray.

I can imagine parents reading that quote and saying: Oh really, how do you know that they're starting to de-emphasize test scores and GPA?

"Well literally, the University of California and other major universities have said we have either stopped using some of those kind of traditional measures or we have decreased the weight that we put on them," says Rattray.

OK, stop right there. I mean, does slinging burgers look as good to colleges as taking one of those unpaid internships we just talked about or maybe a more noble endeavor like volunteering at the free health clinic?

"I would go even further than that. I think the universities are starting to become worried about a young person that seems so narrow in their development and they're inviting applications from students that are more authentic. That a young person can say, 'I've developed different dimensions of my personality, of my life.' And they're actually weighing more towards that can just show all these achievements that I've gotten," says Rattray.

By the way, Rattray says he doesn't mean to give the impression that colleges have stopped emphasizing grades -- that GPA is still key, kids.

So, let us know if you think Rattray is right about all this. And if you know of any great summer jobs for teens, leave a comment.

About the author

Sarah Gardner is a reporter on the Marketplace sustainability desk covering sustainability news spots and features.

Danielle Johnson and Domisi Paraham get ready to attend a job search workshop.

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