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Ready, Wired for Summer

A smattering of e-ployment opportunities is available to teens this season. Traditional jobs such as fast-food work and baby-sitting still rule.

May 16, 2000|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Normally, when teenagers start hunting for work during the summer break, they have to settle for such occupations as executive chef ("You want fries with that?"), landscape architect ("Mowing the side yard is extra") or film director ("You'll be in theater No. 5, to the left of the popcorn stand").

But this summer, their options are expanding a bit. The high-tech tilt of the adult job world has trickled down to the youth market.

Well, sort of.

"It's not an avalanche, but there has been an increase in requests for high school students to do Internet work, Web-page design, computer programming and animation," says Tim Stephens, work-experience coordinator at Canyon High School in Anaheim Hills.

There are also ads for such futuristic-sounding positions as "virtual reality attendant" and "mad scientist."

Alas, in terms of glamour and pay, the new jobs aren't necessarily better than the traditional ones.

For example, the virtual reality attendant slot, which is posted at Summerjobs.com, involves working with a machine that creates the illusion of flying over a forest--complete with the smell of pine trees--or speeding along in a race car while listening to music and catching whiffs of burned rubber and other smell-o-vision aromas. Other virtual-reality voyages feature simulated wind and rain.

But the job offered to teens is merely to staff VR Sensory Theaters at various amusement parks across the country, and show guests how to use the equipment. The pay ranges from $5.50 to $7 an hour.

As for the mad-scientist career, it entails teaching kids at birthday parties and summer day camps such 21st century skills as making slime, launching small rockets and dissecting owl excrement. The salary ranges from $15 to $25 an hour.

The high-tech trend is also spilling over into traditional clerical jobs.

"Very rarely is it just filing and phones anymore," says Robin Sinclair, career advisor at Newport Harbor High School in Newport Beach. "Most office jobs [for teens] now require computer skills."

One student trying to cash in on high-tech fever is Brandon McKennon of Newport Beach, who plans to launch his own Web-page design company this summer.

"I'm hoping to be one of the next dot-com millionaires," says the 16-year-old.

McKennon's dad has fronted him about $3,000 for computer equipment, in exchange for a piece of the action if the company ever goes public. For now, the teen expects to earn $30 to $40 an hour designing Web pages.

Better pay is just one of the possible perks of a high-tech summer job.

"Last year, I had a student who ended up training his adult co-workers on computers, and the company gave him his own office," says Neil Minami, work-experience coordinator at Hawthorne High.

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Still, not every computer-savvy teen wants a summer job in that field.

Carrie Rushman, a junior at St. Joseph's Catholic School in Lakewood, is well-versed in designing Web pages but says she would rather have experience interacting with people. So she's looking for work at Disneyland or maybe a bookstore.

She'll have tons of company. Overall, the computer revolution is barely a blip on the summer employment screen.

"Less than 1% of the 15- to 17-year-olds working in 1996-'98 were employed as data programmers and computer system analysts," reports Karen Kosanovich, an economist with the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. But Kosanovich acknowledges that one reason for the minuscule numbers is the way the government categorizes jobs. The current occupational classification system hasn't been updated since 1983.

High school counselors, however, tend to agree that high-tech jobs are still the exception for teens.

"Out of 2,000 kids on campus, I can count on one hand the number of computer operators and programmers," says David Lawrence of Villa Park High School.

According to the latest analysis by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from 1996 to 1998, the most likely summer employers for teens were restaurants, retail stores and entertainment/recreation services.

Curiously, boys handled most of the cooking and cleaning jobs available, while girls took the vast majority of math- and finance-related duties, such as cashiering.

Other smatterings of students wound up in such fields as mining, construction and--in Minnesota--Japanese beetle trapping.

In Southern California, teens are angling for a wide variety of work. Luis Perez, 16, plans to spend part of his summer as a U.S. Navy cadet.

"I want to serve my country [after high school and college]," says the Newport Harbor High student, whose parents emigrated from El Salvador and instilled in him a sense of gratitude toward their new homeland.

Classmate Kevin Potter, 16, hopes to work as a lifeguard, partly because he wants a career in sports medicine and "knowing CPR looks good on college applications," and partly because "my mom wants me to get a job so I can help pay for car insurance."

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