Emma Oster is hoping for one big gift when she graduates from Heritage High School in June — a summer job that will help pay her fall tuition at Clark College.
But the 17-year-old has already been looking for over a month, and she’s finding prospects are slim for her and her friends. And they’re not the only ones. Even the young college set are having a hard time finding summer work, because as the job market in Clark County has improved dramatically for adults, it’s gotten worse for teens.
“Where those jobs used to be plentiful, those are now few and far between,” said Sharon Pesut, executive director of Partners in Careers. “The kids really need to do their research. It’s not as simple as dropping off a résumé anymore. They have to make an impression.”
After the Great Recession, many adults poured into the sort of service industry jobs that teens typically took in the past. That trend hasn’t changed even as the economy has improved, said Christine Humphrey, WorkFirst’s local program director for job development.
Unemployment fell, but the rebounding economy hasn’t re-created the high-wage manufacturing jobs prevalent here around the turn of the century.
• WorkForce Southwest Washington: workforcesw.org, 360-567-1070
• Washington WorkFirst: www.workfirst.wa.gov, 877-501-2233
• Clark College Career Services: www.clark.edu/campus-life/careers/index.php, 360-992-2902
• Fort Vancouver Regional Library: www.fvrl.org/resources/employment-careers, 360-906-5000.
• Connect 2 Careers: web3.esd112.org/c2c
• Partners in Careers: www.partnersincareers.org/programs.html
Job seeker sites for teens
• Job Corps: www.jobcorps.gov/home.aspx
• Snagajob Teen Jobs: www.snagajob.com/c/teen-jobs
• Goodwill Job Connection: goodwilljobconnection.org
• Now Hiring Vancouver, Facebook Job Board: www.facebook.com/groups/nowhiringvanwa
• Penguin Jobs, Clark College Job Board: www.clark.edu/campus-life/careers/PenguinJobs.php
“It’s become much, much harder for teenagers,” Humphrey said. “Sectors like customer service, retail and fast food — a lot of those have been taken over by adults.”
Even places like McDonald’s, which touts itself as an entry-level career company, have fewer openings for teens, said Oster, who applied there along with some of her friends to no avail.
“McDonald’s doesn’t hire anybody not experienced,” Oster said. “Most people are adults now. They definitely take people who are in college over you. It’s tough competition.”
That said, it’s not impossible for teens to find jobs — far from it, Pesut and Humphrey said. Teens just need to master new skills like résumé writing, interviewing and how to market themselves.
“Getting a job is a full-time job in itself,” Pesut said. “Appearance is a big key. You need to make sure you’re a good fit for the organization. You need to dress for the environment you’re going to work in.”
Groups like WorkForce Southwest Washington, WorkFirst, Fort Vancouver Regional Library and Clark College Career Services provide free skills classes, résumé advice, job fairs and one-on-one training for students and young adults who are looking for their first job. Some also have their own job-seeker boards. And taking advantage of those resources can be a huge difference when a young person first meets with an employer, said Carolyn Johnson, an employment specialist with Clark College Career Services.
“I see the job market as pretty well open so long as you have the skills,” Johnson said. “A good résumé is the first step. But remember, résumé standards change every couple of years. Some may have made one years ago that’s no longer up to date.”
Teens are welcome to call her office and set up an appointment for help creating a résumé, and WorkForce and WorkFirst provide similar one-on-one services, she said.
Most teens don’t have enough experience to make a targeted résumé aimed at a particular industry, but they can use volunteer service, internships or other work like baby-sitting to fill in a functional résumé.
For younger teens who don’t have that experience, volunteering is a great way to build up résumé fodder for the future — and it can also potentially lead to a first job.
“Volunteering builds their skills and it builds a network in the community,” Pesut said. “If you volunteer, sometimes that turns into a pipeline for employment. I know we look to hire our volunteers first here.”
Some places Pesut recommends for volunteering are the Humane Society for Southwest Washington, Habitat for Humanity, YMCA, Clark County Food Bank and the Fort Vancouver Regional Library.
Teens should also know how to write a basic cover letter to go along with their résumé, Johnson said.
“It’s not always required to do a cover letter,” she said. “But if they do one and others don’t, it can be an advantage.”
Her advice: Don’t write too long.
“The first paragraph should talk about the position and why you’re a good fit, and why you want to work for that company,” Johnson said. “The second paragraph, that’s your relevant experience.
“And in the third paragraph, bullet what you can do for them and how your skills match their needs.
“For every answer you want to think like the employer.”
Practicing mock interviews with a counselor can give teens a huge edge in that first real interview as well, Pesut said.
“Telling their story and how they’ll fit into an organization — that’s not how teens are used to talking about themselves,” Pesut said. “Teens have to be able to tell employers how they’ll fit and how they’ll have an impact on the company. We find practice makes a huge difference. When we have mock interviews, employers have been impressed.”
Humphrey likes to go over sample questions with her job-seeking students.
A few common ones: What are three strengths you have that relate to this position?
Everyone has a weakness, what’s yours?
“I would say be more skills-based rather than personal in answering this question — like ‘I’ve never used your cashiering system before, but I’m a fast learner,’ ” Humphrey said.
More questions: Talk about a time when you had to interact with an unhappy client? How did you handle it?
“You want to tell a story with a positive outcome,” Humphrey said. “Sometimes teens don’t realize that.”
And one of the biggest questions: Why should we hire you?
“You’d better have good reasons well-prepared for that one,” she said.
Humphrey suggests writing down answers to a host of potential employer questions, because it helps keep the answers fresh at hand during the actual interview. She also suggests writing out a series of questions you’d like to ask when the employer inevitably asks “Do you have any questions?”
Another way the job market has shifted is through online job postings.
Big-name job boards like Monster and Indeed often lead to postings with applications that are filled out online and reviewed at first by computer.
So one thing job seekers should do is learn how to think like a computer, Pesut said.
“Most applications are filled out online, and a machine comes and scans for keywords,” she said. “If the computer doesn’t get enough hits for what it’s looking for, then that application gets lost.”
A company like Frito-Lay, for instance, uses automation to scan the first 10 to 15 responses. If the computer gets enough keyword hits on the scan, the company’s representatives will then interview and potentially hire. If the application doesn’t get enough keyword hits, the computer goes on to the next 10 to 15 responses, Pesut explained.
“The key is to learn the keywords that the company is looking for so you can get them to pay attention to you,” Pesut said.
Facebook can be another good outlet for young job seekers. The “Now Hiring Vancouver” Facebook site is well vetted and even WorkForce sometimes posts jobs there. Posts include everything from serious adult career opportunities to summer lawn mowing and landscaping jobs, Pesut said.
“A lot of times landscapers hire up in the summer,” Pesut said. “As does Home Depot and other stores that are looking for seasonal help. If teens are willing to do manual labor — there are actually a lot of jobs.”
Get the word out
Sometimes even just tossing out a Facebook post that says you’re looking for a job can help — especially if friends and family share the information through their networks.
“Let your friends and relatives know you’re looking for a job,” Pesut said. “If you get the word out at school or in your circle, those often lead to jobs.”
Small businesses can also be a good source of summer work — with jobs usually found through friendly social networks, she added.
“Parks and recreation is also still a great source for teen jobs,” Pesut said. “The Clark County Fair also hires hundreds of teens in the summer. Of course, teens need transportation — and they need to remember that. But that’s one of the jobs my kids did.”
Oster hopes she’ll be able to find one of those jobs before she turns 18 in July. She said she’s talked to a company that says it will hire her once she turns 18, but she needs to make money for college this summer and can’t really afford to wait.
“I look online a lot,” Oster said. “I go to the mall and ask around. I have my résumés in professional folders, I dress nice and I hand them out. But I’ve been looking for a month with no luck. It’s just a tough competition when you’re under 18.”