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Published in Print: May 30, 2001, as Job Market for Students Tightens as U.S. Economy Cools

Job Market for Students Tightens as U.S. Economy Cools

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Graduating seniors looking to enter the workforce and other high school students searching for summer jobs are facing a tighter job market this year as the once red-hot U.S. economy continues to cool.

No one has to tell 18-year-old Tannia Baqueiro that. Ms. Baqueiro, a graduating senior at Montgomery Blair High School here in suburban Washington, currently makes $7.50 an hour as a part-time clerk for a produce company. But her quest for "less boring" work at higher pay has turned up slim pickings.

Nationally, the jobless rate for 16- to 19-year-olds continues to rise. The unemployment rate for teenagers hit 14.2 percent in April, compared with 12.8 percent last year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

"It's very obvious that it's going to be a little harder this summer, because businesses are much more reserved and cautious," said Mark J. Gambill, the vice president of marketing at Manpower Inc., the nation's largest temporary-employment agency.

The New York City-based company recently surveyed 16,000 public and private employers. It found manufacturing, light industry, and high-tech firms were least likely to be seeking employees.

Temporary jobs typically are the first to suffer in a slowing economy, but other sectors that employ teenagers heavily have fallen on leaner times as well.

For instance, the amusement, recreation, and hotel industries shed a combined 43,000 jobs in March and April, said John F. Stinson Jr., an economist at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Low Pay

Ironically, the pinch comes as the nation's overall jobless rate remains low—4.5 percent in April, a rate about as low as at any time since the 1950s. And statistics show that fewer teenagers have been jobless over the past few summers than at any time during the previous decade.

"The jobless rates are still low by historical standards," Mr. Stinson said.

Ten years ago, for example, the unemployment rate for 16- to 19-year-old workers was 21.1 percent in June and 15.7 percent in July. Last year, the rate was 14.4 percent and 12.4 percent, respectively, federal figures show.

Experts say teenagers looking for summer work still can find lots of jobs—but not lots of pay.

The continuing slump in the nation's high-tech sector and lingering uncertainty over the general health of the economy have combined to limit teenagers' job options to the type of work that American youths typically have thrived on—the retail and fast-food industries.

For the past several years, experts say, large numbers of teenagers found work with high-paying technology companies. But those heady days of $50,000 starting salaries for those with computer skills and only a high school diploma have ended.

Nationally, some 2.8 million students are expected to graduate from public and private high schools this year, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Lacking some sort of postsecondary education or training virtually ensures those graduates will garner low wages.

Ron Bird, the chief economist at the Employment Policy Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit think tank, said economic projections show that wage growth for those with only a high school diploma will be the slowest among all groups.

"There is a fundamental shift evident in the U.S. economy, tied primarily to technology, that will reward more professional, management, and technical-type jobs as opposed to line operators," he said.

Partly for that reason, Mr. Gambill of Manpower said that only a small wage gap exists between high school graduates entering the workforce and students merely looking for summer employment. "The differences between a junior's skill level and a senior's aren't much," he said.

Sharon W. Williams, the career counselor at Montgomery Blair High, said such an outlook makes sense to her. In the past several weeks, she has received 10 calls from employers looking for graduating seniors to hire. Leafing through a binder, she ticked off the names of some of the positions sought, ranging from an administrative assistant for Congress to a clerical job at a plumbing company.

"If you look at what they're paying, it's $15,000 to $20,000 a year," Ms. Williams said. "That's not enough. You can't live on that."

Vol. 20, Issue 38, Page 11

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