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For teens, only cool jobs need apply

June 24, 2008|SANDY BANKS

It could be the rhinestone stud in her cheek, her thin resume, or her unwillingness to interview before noon, lest job-seeking disrupt her gym routine or interrupt her beauty sleep.

Or it could be that this is the weakest job market for teenagers looking for summer work in more than half a century.

But two weeks of pounding the pavement -- or at least occasionally scrolling through "help wanted" ads on Craigslist -- have produced not a single employment offer for my 17-year-old daughter . . . the one with the expensive tastes and empty wallet.

She's gotten good at collecting applications; carries them around in a manila folder to work on when she's not busy chatting with friends online, lounging at Starbucks or holed up watching movies with a buddy.

Most of her friends are jobless thus far -- even the unpierced, early risers. "No one's hiring," they tell me.

There's a busy mall five minutes from our house. Could it be that summer has only just began and every job there is already gone?

On Monday -- while my daughter rested from an exhausting hour on the elliptical machine -- I set out to canvass the shopping center.

Economic indicators show that this summer is shaping up as the toughest job market for teens since the government began tracking youth employment in 1948.

More teenagers are seeking summer jobs, and the faltering economy isn't keeping up. As businesses downsize, displaced adults and even retirees are grabbing slots at fast-food restaurants, retail stores and movie theaters -- typical havens for teens every summer.

A decade ago, almost half of all teenagers across the country held summer jobs. This year, barely one-third of teens expect to find work.

Despite the bleak national figures, David Rattray at the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce told me that even in this soft economy, jobs for teens are plentiful -- if they are willing to compromise.

"It's true there are diminished opportunities this summer, but we still have employers struggling to find workers and lots of jobs that will go unfilled," he said.

In business-starved, inner-city neighborhoods, the chamber helps steer youths into subsidized jobs with private firms and nonprofit agencies, said Rattray, the chamber's vice-president for education and workforce development.

"But among the middle-class and affluent kids, some of them almost think they're too good for the minimum wage jobs that are out there. They've already sort of made up their minds about the only jobs they're willing to take. They'll pass by a job that they think isn't good enough for them."

Tell me about it. My daughter is willing to bag groceries, but only at Whole Foods or Trader Joe's. She wouldn't mind selling clothes, but root around in a dusty storeroom for size 7 loafers? Never.

In my neighborhood, I'm surrounded by kids who have grown up considering summertime leisure a birthright, and now find their parents unwilling or unable to fuel their cars or fund their lattes.

Some might have to suffer a little longer before they're ready to don that blue Wal-Mart vest or take residence behind a Burger King counter.

Last summer, I made my daughter take one of the jobs on the "I would never work there" list. It gave me a sense of satisfaction to watch her don her bright red shirt and fasten on an employee badge with her name plastered across a platter of strawberry pancakes.

She professed to hate every minute of it. I enjoyed watching a girl who claimed not to know how to operate a toaster at home, at a restaurant blending milkshakes, ringing up orders and wiping down dirty tables.

This summer, she's determined to avoid that prospect.

On Monday, the first store I visited at the Northridge Fashion Center was still hiring. I imagine my daughter there, at Victoria's Secret, standing in front of a mountain of underwear, folding thongs into triangle slivers.

It turns out many of the stores, including that one, don't hire 17-year-olds. But the list of stores that do -- and have openings listed in the mall's job book -- was long.

Pac Sun, American Eagle, Gap, Cost Plus, Forever 21 . . . I brought three applications back and sent my daughter back to the mall with her manila folder for more.

I felt good, until I shared my experience with Rattray.

Employers hate it when Mom does the work to get the job, he said.

"It's the kiss of death if Mom walks into Starbucks dragging the kid by the hand," he said. "If they don't look serious, they're not going to get a second look. The interview is over before it's begun."

What should parents do? "Make sure you're clear that there are plenty of opportunities out there, but that getting a job takes persistence." Tell them, "You keep going back, even if they don't call you. You let them know you really want to work."

And I'm too embarrassed to ask him the next question. So how do you make them really want to work?

--

sandy.banks@latimes.com

For tips on finding a job, teenagers (moms stay away) can go to www.hirelayouth.org

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