Summer jobs used to be a fact of life for most teens. They were baby sitters, lifeguards, lawn mowers and errand runners. They pumped gas, waited tables, drove grain trucks, ran cash registers, tasselled corn, picked fruit, typed and filed. They worked.
While they were working, they learned important lessons about what they were good at doing, what they enjoyed doing, and what kinds of work they wanted to avoid spending the rest of their working years doing. They began to understand the relationship between working and having what they wanted. They learned how to get ahead.
They earned enough money to buy old cars and fill them with gas, to purchase trendy clothes their parents disliked and to save for college. Many helped their families pay bills.
This year, according to The Associated Press, employment for teens has dropped to its lowest level since World War II. Fewer than a third of Americans 16 to 19 years old were employed last summer.
Some dont have time to work because theyre attending classes, lessons and camps or traveling with their families. Others, though, simply cant find jobs.
Unemployed and underemployed older workers, jobless college graduates and immigrants have all snapped up jobs that used to be available for teens. In this strapped economy, fewer employers are hiring part-time and seasonal workers.
The lack of teen employment is doubly unfortunate, and the loss of income may be the lesser of the two consequences. Not many years ago, a summer of hard work could pay for a year of college. Tuition has soared, and thats no longer true; the relationship between minimum-wage work and growing financial independence now is tenuous. A tank of gas can cost a days wages.
First jobs produce so much more than income, though. Theyre a first step into the world of upward mobility. As those who have lost jobs can attest, unemployment makes getting a new job measurably more difficult. Never having had a job magnifies that difficulty. With so much competition for every entry-level position, why would an employer take a chance on an applicant with no work history, no references, no evidence of dependability or initiative or determination?
One good reason would be that a generation of young adults who cant find their way into the workforce will be a drag on the economy for years to come. Those applicants wont always be teens, and too many of them are missing out on years of valuable experiences.
In rural communities, employers simply may not have the ability to provide a wading pool for the labor force. Supervising teens requires close attention, and the immediate return on investment may not be positive. Thats the reason parents have, for years, agreed to employ each others children or have paid someone to pay their children unbeknownst to the young employees.
The economic climate has changed, and it wont be changing back, but American businesses have to find ways to ensure a steady supply of trained, experienced and motivated workers. The current crop of young people needs to learn how to work; the current crop of adults needs to figure out a way to provide that experience for them.