For many kids, summer means swims at the pool and a reprieve from homework. But for many others, it can mean their first taste of employment.
For the second summer, Erin Gleason will be taking orders at the snack bar at the Lower Makefield Township pool in Bucks County. The Pennsbury High School senior took the position because she wants to be more independent.
“I like to take responsibility for everything that I do,” she says. “I like to shop, and I like to go out with my friends, so I wanted to be able to pay for the things that I want to do.”
Gleason, 18, learned of the position by word of mouth, and she said she’s grateful because she didn’t know where to look.
While 40 percent of Pennsylvania’s teens work, youth employment across the country has been on a sharp decline since 2000, particularly summer jobs. That’s partly because more teens from 16 to 19 are participating in summer school and other activities.
Sara Goulet, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor, says youth employment numbers fluctuate, but the most drastic drop was during the Great Recession.
“A lot of kids who were searching for jobs weren’t necessarily getting them because — our speculation is — they were being filled by older workers who had lost jobs elsewhere,” she says.
That situation has eased over the past few years. The unemployment rate now stands at 5.6 percent in the tristate metro area and at 4.3 percent in the surrounding counties. In Philadelphia, where the jobless rate is about 7 percent, groups such as Philly Works and Philly Future Track help match city kids with job opportunities.
But that doesn’t mean it’s any easier for young people to find jobs, especially with more adult Pennsylvanians working part time because they want to.
“They’re just choosing to because they want to, for non-economic reasons,” says Goulet. “They enjoy the job and want to get out of house.”
A report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that entry-level positions in retail and the food industry that are usually filled by teens are now being filled by older workers with more experience and education. It also notes that youth who miss out on early work opportunities are at greater risk of later unemployment.
Pennsylvania’s youth employment rate is slowly increasing. Teens currently make up 4 percent of Pennsylvania’s workforce, primarily in retail, food service and hospitality.
The transportation factor
At the Lower Makefield pool snack bar, cashier Gleason shows 17-year-old Rachel Gorecki around the kitchen on her first day. Gorecki, an 11th-grader at Pennsbury, worked at nearby Sesame Place last summer and relied on her parents for rides back and forth.
“It just became more of a hassle, for my parents especially, because they both work,” she says. “And so trying to get me while they’re working and going back became a real headache.”
She chose the job at the snack bar this summer because she can walk to it.
Gleason can drive herself now that she has a license.
Across Pennsylvania, almost 60 percent of teens drive to work. Another 20 percent carpool or take public transportation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. There isn’t exact data on the remaining 20 percent, but they may walk, bike or get dropped off.
Brian Cummings, director of PA CareerLink Bucks County, said via email that transportation is a major barrier to youth finding employment, especially in the upper part of the county where public transportation is limited. Most teens try to find jobs within walking distance, he says.
Age and transportation dilemmas are obstacles for teens seeking work, says Amy Schwartz, the director of the Institute for Education and Social Policy at NYU who studies the impact of youth employment programs.
“So trying to get a job when you’re 14, that’s hard,” she says. “There are things that you can’t do because you can’t drive and you don’t have transportation. Certainly, that will be harder in places where you have to drive, and there is no driving or access to public transportation.”
Nicholas McGrath, a 10th-grader at Pennsbury, has applied for 20 summer jobs.
“I’m just trying to find a part-time job, get my foot in the door,” he says. “I’m looking for anything.”
The 16-year-old is having a hard time finding a summer job. He’s tried word of mouth and consulted his high school job board, which posts youth work opportunities in the area.
Old advice remains relevant
Those who help teens find jobs say tried-and-true tactics, such as starting the job search early, networking with friends and family, using school job boards and placement programs are still the ways many kids find work.
Josh Kramer, an Upper Dublin High School senior, is an intern in the office of U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle of Philadelphia. Kramer found the position through his school’s community study program, which has run for more than 30 years. It allows seniors to experience a job related to their career interests for three weeks.
Kramer will continue his unpaid internship this summer until he attends college in the fall.
“I am very interested in politics,” he said via email. “Spending time in the office of my member of Congress is giving me great exposure and insight into the world of public service and government affairs.”
Besides internships as a way to gain work experience, officials at the Bucks County Workforce Investment Board say parents should stress the importance of volunteering and other school activities so teens can acquire relevant experience and skills to put on an application.
School guidance counselors, school placement programs and job centers, such as PA CareerLink centers, are great resources, Cummings says. Pennsylvania has 65 PA CareerLink offices, including nine in southeastern PA. The walk-in job centers, which are open to anyone, can help with finding a job, offer job training and soft skills classes and post openings.