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Teens and young adults find a harsh job market

Many are pushed aside by older workers seeking employment after being laid off. Unemployment rates for youthful workers have jumped significantly in the last year.

June 28, 2009|Seema Mehta

Amber Medina has been looking for a job for five months, ever since her father, a metal-worker, was laid off and her mom began struggling to support the family of seven on her $15-per-hour job.

But the 17-year-old has yet to find anything permanent, despite sending out resumes and visiting dozens of potential employers, including the clothing stores Old Navy and PacSun. "I'm looking for any job to help my parents," she said.

Medina said that when her father earned $28 per hour, the family lived comfortably, easily making purchases such as cameras and the latest fashions. He recently found work, but it pays less than half what his previous job did.

The change in the family's circumstances is evident daily, such as on trips to the grocery store. "We don't throw everything in the basket like we used to," she said.

Medina, who is graduating this week from Roosevelt High School, is not alone.

With unemployment rates hitting record highs for teens and young adults, these workers are desperately seeking jobs this summer with little success. This year, the mainstays of youth summer employment -- the mall, the movie theaters, diners and fast-food chains -- are increasingly being filled by older workers pushed down the economic ladder by the recession.

Amanda Mercado, 20, said she has applied for about 200 jobs since January, when her employer moved 60 miles away to San Clemente. But she is sympathetic to the plight of older job seekers.

"I would hire a person . . . who has kids over me too," Mercado said last week, as she took a resume-writing course at the El Sereno Library.

Myra Arias, 20, a clerk at a UPS store in Boyle Heights, said she sees adults with extensive job experience asking for applications at the store every day.

"They're older and they're coming into a UPS store to ask for a job," she said. "It's kind of shocking."

Arias said the sour economy has been driven home for her twice recently: When her 29-year-old sister was laid off from her teaching position and when Arias visited the sandwich shop where she had worked during high school and found a friend's mother, laid off from a managerial job, behind the counter.

"It's, like, really tough right now," the West Covina resident said.

Statistics back up these tales. In May, unemployment hit 11.2% for Californians of working age, but it was 27.8% for 16- to 19-year-olds, and 14.3% for 20- to 24-year-olds. The figures represented a nearly 50% jump in teen and young-adult unemployment since May 2008, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The situation has grown even more dire since the data were released, said economist Jack Kyser of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

School districts, which issue work permits once teens secure jobs, say fewer students are requesting them. The Pasadena Unified School District issued 427 permits during the school year that just ended, compared with 907 the previous year, said Binti Harvey, a spokeswomen for the district.

Teens and young adults are hampered by several factors, from competition with older workers to an overall lack of jobs, Kyser said.

"A lot of the sectors where teens usually look for summer employment have dried up and blown away," he said, pointing to retail positions in particular. "You go into any mall, you don't see very many help-wanted signs. You're more likely to see blank storefronts."

Mike Rausch, a manager at a Trader Joe's market in Long Beach, said that despite a stream of job-seekers filling out applications, the store has not hired anyone in three months because of a dip in sales. "We've ordered so many more applications because our applications are running out very quickly," he said. But "we haven't hired anyone for a while just because business has been down."

One temporary bright spot involves the jobs for young people produced by the federal government's economic stimulus package. California received nearly $187 million, which is being used to create positions for teens and young adults around the state.

In Los Angeles, Para Los Ninos is placing 305 youths this summer at jobs funded by federal money, at such venues as the East Los Angeles courthouse and the California Science Center.

The young people, including Medina, will be paid $8 per hour and the jobs will run for 140 hours. But first they had to complete a weeklong job-skills training course at the nonprofit's center on skid row.

At one point in the recent training session, instructor Cathleen Cotter asked the teens what type of work they were seeking.

"A job," Edgar Varela, 17, replied wearily. "Any job that pays."

The Boyle Heights youth has been looking for work for about a year, from stocking inventory at warehouses to selling shirts at the Gap. "There's a lot of competition out there even just to get a minimum wage job," he said.

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