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VENTURA COUNTY BUSINESS

Even Entertainment Centers Have Tougher Time Finding Teen Workers

Employment: A tight job market and changing attitudes are making it more difficult for amusement parks and other popular venues to recruit help.

November 21, 2000|JENNIFER PENDLETON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There's no business like show business when it comes to attracting teenage workers in Southern California. But even the ever-popular entertainment venues admit to feeling the pinch in today's super-tight job market.

With Los Angeles County's unemployment rate at 5.3%--and even lower in certain booming areas within the region--employers who rely on teenage workers are redoubling efforts to recruit and hold onto the entry-level employees on whom they depend.

Entertainment and recreational venues--such as theme parks, family fun centers, movie theaters and ice rinks--have built-in advantages in recruiting teen talent because young people perceive them as fun places to work. After all, why flip burgers over a hot, greasy stove in a fast-food joint when you can earn equivalent pay while hanging out in a place you'd happily go on your own time?

But even these employers are out in force, touting their working environments and benefits--a reflection of the fact that they can't leave anything to chance in the current robust economy. Some, such as Six Flags Magic Mountain and Hurricane Harbor in Valencia, recruit young workers from foreign lands for peak times, in part as a response to the current employment crunch.

"The job market is in the hands of the employees," said Ken Schipper, general manager of the Mountasia family fun center in Santa Clarita, which offers go-carts, bumper boats, a video arcade and other attractions.

This means teen workers often have lackadaisical attitudes, according to some. "There's been a huge outcry from the business community about the work ethic [of entry-level workers]," said Jack Kyser, chief economist with the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. "The labor market is so tight, it's giving them massive headaches."

Most of the big entertainment venues in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys say they still hold the power when it comes to hiring teens, although they admit recruiting them is more difficult than in times past.

Officials at Universal Studios Hollywood, the San Fernando Valley's largest employer with 4,000 to 5,000 workers from low season to high, say they have a leg up.

"There's a high level of excitement, not just because we're a theme park, but that we are the world's largest movie studio," said Dana Zeno, director of staffing services. But at the same time, Zeno added, "We've had some difficulties in hiring young people."

Today, Universal Studios doesn't wait for job seekers to come to it (although that still happens a lot). In light of the tighter job market, park officials regularly attend and hold job fairs, in some instances interviewing and hiring would-be employees on the spot.

Most of the time, there are more job seekers than jobs. Recently, for example, Universal participated in a job fair at Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles at which 500 people applied. The company ended up hiring about 250 people from the downtown area, which is now easily linked to Universal Studios by the Metro Rail subway.

In May, before the peak summer season, about 3,000 would-be employees showed up at another event. Universal ended up hiring 1,100.

Although most of Universal Studios' entry-level jobs pay only slightly higher than minimum wage, perks--such as multiple free admission vouchers to the park annually, on-lot movie screenings, and admission discounts with certain movie theater chains--keep fun-loving teens coming back.

And in contrast to most entry-level employers, Universal Studios also touts itself as an organization in which someone can start low and build a worthy career. That was the case with park Senior Vice President and General Manager Michael Taylor, who started 30 years ago cleaning cages backstage.

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Magic Mountain and Hurricane Harbor officials also believe they hold the upper hand. Of its 2,500 to 3,500 employees (80% of whom are teenagers), it draws young workers from communities such as Palmdale and Lancaster, where job opportunities for teens are relatively scarce. "We still have the power of selection," Magic Mountain publicist Amy Means said.

Like Universal Studios, Magic Mountain offers entertainment extras that teens crave, including free guest passes and discounts with local carwashes, movie theaters and restaurants.

Even so, for the last two summers, Magic Mountain has recruited 250 international students from Poland and France, a reflection of the current tight job market. "We're using different programs because the unemployment rate is so low," Means said.

Likewise, Universal Studios works with international organizations to recruit European and Asian students--typically college age--for extra help at peak times. "We've had more this past summer than we've ever had," Zeno said.

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