Economy: The End of the Summer Job?

For anyone looking for a job, it's been a cruel summer. It's especially hard out there for teenagers who are facing, as one report puts it, the "worst summer job market since 1948." Working retail or scooping ice cream was, for generations, a rite of passage for many high-schoolers. But with national unemployment at 9.4 percent first-time job hunters are finding themselves competing with unemployed adults who are now willing to take positions that were considered entry-level in prerecessionary times.

Where does that leave high-school- and college-age students, apart from spending their summers lying on the couch? It leaves them with little income and, worse, few job skills, says Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. "It hurts their ability to get jobs in the future," he says. Teens who work in high school and college on average earn salaries 16 percent higher than teens who don't work, according to the center's research.

Even for motivated or experienced teens, it's tough to find jobs in this tight economy. Katelyn Vasconcelos, a 19-year-old sophomore at Simmons College in Boston, moved home for the summer and expected to easily find a job at the nearby mall—particularly since she'd already worked at a local McDonald's. Instead, she spent her days filling out applications and making follow-up phone calls. "I've actually had a really hard time all summer," Vasconcelos says from her cell phone. "Every store was looking for people who could stay on after the summer, and I have to go back to college."

After two months, she finally found a position at Cecily's Café, a gourmet sandwich and coffee shop—thanks to a friend who has worked there for the past several years. "I don't like asking my parents for money," she says. "I like being more responsible, and it's always good to have extra cash."

Working summer jobs certainly translates into higher earning power in the long term, but more important, it gives teens "soft skills." Those skills teach them to be punctual, write professional e-mails, and work well in teams. "There's lots of evidence that shows that employers place a high premium on those skills," Sum says. "If you don't work, you develop cultural signals from other kids, from the streets, or from sitting at home in front of a computer, which is the worst way to learn how to get along with people."

To help students learn these skills, many states are using federal stimulus money to fund job-placement programs for kids ages 14 to 24. Vera Gallagher runs such a program for the Greater Lowell Workforce Investment Board in Massachusetts. So far, she's found jobs that pay $8 an hour for 650 kids. More than 1,300 teens and 20-somethings have applied for the program. "It's great to give youths their first jobs. You can always tell after they get their first paycheck," she says. "Some of them save. Some of them help their families."

For teens who have been lucky enough to find work this summer, researchers like Sum hope that the experience will give them a better sense of how to get along in the world—and how to find job as an adult.