A summer job is a traditional rite of passage for most teens, but this year that may be passing them by.
Nationwide, teens are facing the most difficult summer hiring season in decades, experts say.
The unemployment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds hovered at 26.4% last month — the highest May figure since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking it in 1948 — as older workers continued snapping up jobs normally held by the under-20 set. That rate is well above the month's national average of 9.7% for all workers and California's jobless rate of 12.4%.
"It's a tough job market for everyone, especially teens," said John Challenger, chief executive of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. "They're being crowded out by people, sometimes college grads, who can't find career-path jobs but still need to make ends meet."
It took eight months for Jessica Weidemann to find a job. The 17-year-old from Santa Monica filled out more than 70 applications to retailers, bakeries and surf shops.
"I got lots of callbacks," she said. "But there would be people 25 years older than me showing up at cupcake stores for interviews, wearing full business suits. It was really sad and really scary."
She finally found a job at Pacific Sunwear and then referred her friend for a job there too.
Many who find jobs credit friends, family or organizations that help teens with work placement.
That's how Kristina Castro, 18, got her sales position at Marshall's last summer. As part of the GED high school equivalency diploma program at the Community Youth Corps in Norwalk, a nonprofit organization that helps at-risk youths develop employment skills, she got placed there last summer.
"It made getting a job a lot easier," she said. "But that ended in a month, and this year, I haven't been able to find anything yet."
The retail, hospitality and tourism industries, still recovering from a crushing recession, aren't eager to hire, said Sylvia Allegretto, an economist at the UC Berkeley Institute for Research on Labor and Employment.
"It'll be interesting to see what happens in the next few months," she said. "Even stimulus money directed toward hiring teens in certain states is winding down."
Mike Fata, the co-owner of three restaurants in Southern California — Charlie's Trio, Charlie's Trio Café and 38 Degrees — once hired many teens but said that the rising cost of labor, combined with a bad economy, have all but halted that practice.
"Now, we look for more experienced workers. They have to be efficient from the beginning; they have to carry the weight," Fata said, adding that fewer teens have even come in looking for work. "I wish I could hire a lot more of these kids. People are hanging on to their jobs; unless other people quit, I don't plan on hiring more this summer."
Some researchers blame California's $8-an-hour minimum wage — one of the highest in the country — for decreasing the number of jobs available at that pay rate. The state's teen unemployment rate averaged 34.2% for the fiscal year that ended April 30, the third-highest after Mississippi and Nevada, according to estimates by the Employment Policies Institute, a business-backed think tank in Washington.
"The policy unintentionally makes the cost of hiring greater," said Michael Saltsman, research fellow at the institute. "Employers respond by cutting back on service and hiring fewer workers."
Allegretto dismissed this theory: "People blame minimum wage, but the truth is that we simply don't have a labor market robust enough to churn out enough jobs," she said.
In comparison with the rest of the labor force, teen unemployment is always relatively high, she added. "We have to put it in context."
The outlook may not be entirely dismal.
Even in a struggling economy, June is still usually the peak month for temporary hires, Challenger said. "There's also a higher turnover in the summer, so many may get jobs later on in the season," he said.
However difficult it may be to find employment, experts agree that the tenacity required to find and keep a job is a formative experience for youths. "I call it the 80/20 rule," said Renee Ward, founder of job website Teens4Hire.org. "It takes moxie on the part of a teenager who wants to work to take that initiative. The 20% who don't give up will find jobs."
For most teens, that means getting a regular paycheck will require not only dozens of applications, but also a resume, professional attire and an effort beyond the norm.
"My advice is, don't give up," Weidemann said. "You have to keep putting yourselves out there."