Jasmine Blocker has reached an impasse in her job hunt. After weeks of pounding the pavement, the 19-year-old Chicago native still hasn't found employment for the summer, and her applications have gone unanswered. Without a job, and with a child of her own to take care of, Ms. Blocker is growing frustrated.
"Now that I'm at my wit's end, I'm looking for any job. Restaurant, retail, anything. I think that's what it is - a lack of experience," she says. "Maybe people have had one or two jobs, but I've only had one."
Blocker is mired in one of the more common pitfalls faced by the millions of teenagers searching for jobs each summer: the Catch-22 of employment experience. Companies are reluctant to hire teens with little or no work history. But without a job to prove themselves, young people lack the experience necessary to jump-start a career.
Seasonal job applicants have always faced this chicken-and-egg challenge, and this year may offer little relief from that cycle. According to labor analysts, the job market for young people this summer will be nearly as austere as over the past several years, despite an upswing in employment numbers in the overall labor market.
"The last few summers saw some of the lowest teen employment rates in history," says Joseph McLaughlin, a research associate at the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University and one of the authors of an annual summer teen job-market report. They predict an employment rate of 37.4 percent for the summer of 2006 - marking only a slight improvement over last year's 36.8 percent.
The continuing job stagnation for teens comes at a time when their priorities seem to be shifting. Nearly 36 percent of teens cited a need to save money for college as the top reason for working this summer, according to the annual Junior Achievement Interprise Poll of nearly 1,500 teens published in May. Until this year, most teens had listed a need for spending money as their primary reason for seeking work.
"They're kind of seeing a more purposeful need to work," says Darrell Luzzo, senior vice president of education for JA Worldwide in Colorado Springs, Colo. "They know that because of the high cost of tuition and fees ... their parents will be reluctant to offer spending money," he says.
The prolonged lull in the summer labor market this decade is a surprise. During the decades after World War II, teenage employment followed a fairly consistent pattern. Teen hiring prospects rode on the outside of America's cyclical employment curve. During recessions, older workers would settle for the lower-skilled jobs normally awarded to teens and less- experienced applicants. "It wasn't surprising that [teens] were hit so hard by [the recession of] 2001," Mr. McLaughlin says. "What was surprising is that their recovery has been very slow."
Among other explanations, Northeastern's Center for Labor Market Studies points to a ballooning teenage population that has flooded the labor market. From 1992 to 2000, America's youth surged by 2.1 million, or 15 percent, to 16.5 million teenagers. Seasonal summer job opportunities haven't kept pace.
Labor market analysis shows that for many high schoolers, especially those who aren't college-bound, the summer job is the kind of germinal work experience that can set the tone for a successful career. That's why, in many regions, local and state governments are intervening in the labor market to make sure less- advantaged teenagers start out on the right foot.
"Frankly, sometimes we think that any work is good work because we know that income in high school, especially in the senior year, predicts your income in your early 20s," says Chris Smith, director of partnerships and employer organizing at the Boston Private Industry Council, one of the nation's leading …