Teenagers Seeking Jobs Facing Long, Not-So-Hot Summer

By Hattie Brown — May 28, 2003 3 min read
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The declining job market in Wichita, Kan., became a reality for 16-year-old Corrinda Calhoun when she learned that the annual job fair for teenagers was canceled. Not enough employers were willing to come, it turns out.

Pondering the prospect of a summer with no job, Ms. Calhoun, who worked for the past two summers, imagined a boring break—with no cash coming in and nothing new to put on a résumé.

“A lot of kids were worried because it’s our source of money during the summer,” she said recently. “If you don’t have that money, there’s a lot of things you can’t do.”

Teenagers who typically turn to retail stores, fast-food restaurants, and city- and county-run programs for summer job opportunities may be disappointed this year. The weak economy has more adults snatching jobs commonly taken by teenagers, and budget cuts have shut down many popular youth-job programs.

The national unemployment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds continues to rise, providing hard evidence of teenagers’ predicament. In April, that rate hit 18 percent, up from 16.9 percent this time last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But teenagers are staying positive, said Edwin Bodensiek, a spokesman for Junior Achievement Inc., the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based organization that promotes the value of free enterprise, business, and economics to youths. In a Junior Achievement poll of about 1,100 teenagers nationwide, a majority said they want to work this summer, and many believe jobs are available.

“I think teens are remarkably optimistic and resilient,” Mr. Bodensiek said. “I think they’re a little sheltered from the realities of the economy.”

Competing With Adults

Teenagers tend to seek jobs in places most familiar to them as consumers—fast-food places or malls—but they may find they’re competing with adults this year, Mr. Bodensiek said. And though teenagers overwhelmingly say they want to work, the percentage is the lowest this year in the four years Junior Achievement has taken the poll, he said.

The tight economy has led many young people to volunteer or go to summer school instead of searching for jobs, said Renee Ward, the founder and executive director of, an online job service for teenagers.

Job availability has been a major issue in Wichita, where thousands of aviation workers have been out of work since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

“Now there’s virtually no employment opportunities for [teenagers],” said Jake Lowen, the youth organizer of Hope Street Youth Development, a leadership program in a predominantly African-American area.

In an effort to alleviate the problem, Hope Street organizers have formed a partnership with the local workforce-investment board to get training and summer jobs for about 30 teenagers. Through the program, Hope Street will subsidize half the pay for the teenagers if employers don’t have the money to hire them.

Ms. Calhoun, a Wichita High School Southeast sophomore, is one of the teenagers who helped organize Hope Street’s program. Employers from recreation and child-care centers, and law offices have already expressed interest in the program, she said.

“The jobs we were shooting for were jobs that will help us in the long run—something that gives me experience in what I want to do,” Ms. Calhoun said.

In Minneapolis, the parks and recreation board has had to scale back dramatically its summer-job program for 14- to 18-year-olds, called Teen Teamworks. Budget cuts have reduced the length of the program, from the previous 10 weeks down to eight weeks, and fewer spots will be available.

“We’re used to hiring about 200 teen workers, but this year, if we get 50, we’re lucky,” said project coordinator Linda Tkaczik. “It’s a great program, and I hate to see the cuts.”

The program, begun in 1986, serves teenagers from low-income households. Many of the young workers use the money to supplement their family’s earnings, Ms. Tkaczik said. The teenagers work four days a week doing park maintenance, and earn a little more than the minimum wage.

With no other alternatives, Ms. Tkaczik said she fears teenagers will turn to the streets.

“I’m afraid to think about it sometimes. They’re not going to be motivated to get up before noon,” she said. “They’re going to be more apt to run with some peers that they shouldn’t. That’s what I’m really afraid of.”

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