Teens yearn to earn but employment numbers tumble

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photoLucas Schwartz, 17, rings in an order while working his shift at Burgerville.

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photoLucas Schwartz, 17, clears an order before delivering shakes to customers during his shift June 30 at the Central Park Burgerville on East Fourth Plain Boulevard. Holding a job makes Schwartz is part of a minority among Clark County teens.

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For up to 20 hours a week, Lucas Schwartz takes customer orders and prepares food at the Central Park Burgerville on East Fourth Plain Boulevard. The job, in turn, serves the Hudson's Bay High School senior-to-be with meat for his résumé and money for gas and car insurance, among other things.

"It gives me more freedom," Schwartz, 17, said of earning a paycheck, "but I also have to be more responsible with my money and watch what I spend."

Schwartz's employment status makes him part of the minority among Clark County teens; employment has plummeted the past two decades for residents between the ages of 14 and 18. Nearly 70 percent of that group held jobs in the early 1990s; that plunged over the past decade to a low of 20 percent in 2010, regional labor economist Scott Bailey said.

This is bad news for teens like Woodland High rising senior Kati Southerland, who has unsuccessfully tried to land a hostess job this summer in Vancouver and Salmon Creek.

Clark County's teen employment doldrums are part of a nationwide trend.

Fewer than three in 10 American teens ages 16 to 19 held jobs from June through August 2011, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies. Those numbers represented the lowest teen employment since World War II.

In Clark County, fewer than two in 10 teens ages 14 to 18 work. The ratio the county uses for teen employment paints a rosier picture than reality, Bailey said, because it takes into account teens who work multiple jobs or switch jobs.

State law allows 14- and 15-year-olds to work up to six days per week and 40 hours during nonschool weeks, as opposed to up to 16 hours during school weeks. State law allows 16- and 17-year-olds to work at most 28 hours per school week and 48 hours during nonschool weeks.

There is no definitive reason for the teen employment erosion, Bailey said.

Some of the blame falls on the lingering economic recession, the economist explained, noting that teens who want to work often cannot find a job. This is true either because companies have downsized or because adults with more job experience are poaching jobs teens once filled.

The low teen employment rate can also be attributed to their using their summers in other ways, such as playing sports, being involved in community service, or enrolling in summer school, Bailey noted. Those activities, while productive, do not replace work experience, he said.

Jobs teach teens basic workplace expectations such as the value of being on time, and inspire financial activities such as balancing a checkbook.

"A lot of people have never gotten onto a career track," Bailey said, referring to teens' first jobs. "That's gotten delayed."

Studies show those teens who join the workforce later will never make up the money they lost while unemployed, the economist added.

Schwartz considers himself "really lucky" to have worked the past 11 months for Burgerville, a job that pays him $9.04 per hour (Washington's minimum wage).

It's easy to understand Schwartz's enthusiasm when viewing Bailey's teen employment graph or talking with teens who have tried in vain to find work.

Southerland, the Woodland 18-year-old, said she traveled south to seek employment after her classmates scooped up all the available jobs in her hometown.

Many of her other friends are enjoying a job-free summer by choice, she said. She would rather plot a different course.

"My parents want us to be more successful, so having a job is a big deal in our family," she said. "Also, I like paying for my own things rather than asking my parents for money."

Southerland obtains spending money, for now, by performing household chores. This earned allowance does not boost her résumé, however.

Are you experienced?

Tyler Rice-Barry's résumé -- specifically the lack of experience on it -- has been a thorn in his side during his search for jobs. He has used Internet search engine Google to explore prospects the past four months, but has failed to land his first job.

"You always find some (job openings) but most of them require you to be older or have experience," said the 17-year-old Evergreen High senior-to-be. The experience has frustrated Rice-Barry to the point he is considering giving up the search.

For some, the trick to finding employment is first donating time.

Genevieve Roberts, a senior-to-be at Columbia River High, contributed 800 community service hours the past two years before landing a paid job with Evergreen Habitat for Humanity, as part of a program sponsored by Bank of America. Roberts, 17, echoed Schwartz's feelings about having a job.

"I feel fortunate and blessed," Roberts said.

Teens like Southerland and Rice-Barry are no longer competing against other teens or even young adults.

"(Jobs are) out there, but the problem we're seeing with the job market is, those entry-level jobs are going to people with job experience," said David Cole, coordinator of Vancouver Partners In Careers' Youth First pilot program. The program assisted 20 high school students, who were not on track to graduate, in finding jobs and learning other work-related skills. All eight of the program's seniors graduated in 2012, Cole said.

Vicki Vanneman with Vancouver Parks and Recreation has seen the same type of uneven competition for jobs Cole described.

The organization hires 250 to 300 temporary workers each summer to assist with camps and act as lifeguards at swimming pools.

Not only are there fewer of these jobs available due to city budget cuts but the job applicants are becoming older -- a double whammy for teens.

"We have more adults looking for part-time jobs out of necessity," Vanneman noted.

This puts teens at disadvantages, because their older competitors have job experience on their side.

How much this matters is largely up to the employer.

'Meaningful work'

At Burgerville, young employees' creativity and "crazy ideas" are valued, said Jeff Harvey, the company's chief executive officer.

Around 25 percent of the Vancouver-based quick-serve chain's 1,500 restaurant workers are between 16 to 19 years old, Harvey said. The majority -- 45 percent -- are in their 20s.

Even as the economy has ebbed and flowed, the company's workforce has remained largely 16- to 29-year-olds. That trend shows signs of staying the same.

At a recent hiring event for their soon-to-open Tigard, Ore., restaurant, one-third of the 45 people hired had never worked before, Harvey said.

Each employee, regardless of age, receives a development plan. With teenage workers, Harvey sees potential gains not just for his company but also society.

"We strive, as much as we can, to give them meaningful work, not just a paycheck," Harvey said.

Could always be worse

The line on Bailey's teen employment graph has resumed an upward trajectory since bottoming out in 2010.

It is still nowhere near the 60 percent level it was in 2000. Or 40 percent, as it was in 2008. In truth, it's still miles from 30 percent.

The lofty heights of yesteryear may never return. The county's teen population nearly doubled in the 2000s while jobs became scarcer, after all. At least they won't, given the current economic horizon.

The best forecast Bailey can predict?

"I don't think it's going to get any worse," Bailey said. "The economy is slowly getting better."

Bailey thought about this answer for a moment, then corrected himself. It could always be worse, he noted.

Ray Legendre: 360-735-4517; http://facebook.com/raylegend; http://twitter.com/col_smallcities; ray.legendre@columbian.com.