Across the country, poor teens face similarly long odds. The summer job market for teens is suffering along with the rest of the economy. And those jobs will be harder to find this year for the poorer kids who need them the most as laid-off adults compete for work at the lowest rung.
NEW YORK — When Theodor Gervais was 14, he took a summer job selling cellphone covers in Brooklyn for $100 a month, sitting at a table outside a phone store in what he describes as “somewhat of a bad area.” His cousin worked inside and, worried for Theodor’s safety, checked on him all day.
Now 16, Theodor hoped this summer would be safer and more profitable. He applied for a summer job through a city-sponsored program in his neighborhood and found he was one of 3,200 applicants — for fewer than 1,200 jobs.
Across the country, poor teens face similarly long odds.
The summer job market for teens is suffering along with the rest of the economy. And those jobs will be harder to find this year for the poorer kids who need them the most as laid-off adults compete for work at the lowest rung.
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“Summer is a time when the rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” said Ron Fairchild, executive director of the Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University.
Wealthier teens are more likely to have the family and school connections that help them land summer jobs — as counselors at the camps they attend, lifeguards at the pools where they swim and clerks at the stores where they shop.
Last summer, half of teens whose families earned $75,000 to $100,000 worked, according to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. Less than a third of teens from families making less than $20,000 had work.
Black teens in central cities had just a 15 percent employment rate. And because early work experience makes it easier to get a job as an adult, the tougher market for summer jobs for poor teens hobbles them as they get older.
“The kids who need work the most get it the least,” said Andrew Sum, director of the center.
The teen job market, like the overall economy, is looking bleak. The overall unemployment rate for teens jumped from 15.4 percent in April to 18.7 percent in May, the highest rate since 2003. Roughly 200,000 teens, an unusually high monthly number, started looking for work. The unemployment number is based on how many teens are actively — and unsuccessfully — seeking jobs.
Teen employment is down sharply since 2000, when the economy peaked and the Clinton administration ended a federal summer jobs program. The rate of teens who had jobs last year was the lowest in more than half a century, Sum said.
Among the reasons why: Jobs that once went to teens now go to older or immigrant workers, he said. And some big-box stores have raised the minimum age for applications.
Cities that offer programs to help poorer kids find work are finding themselves besieged.
In Buffalo, N.Y., the mayor’s summer jobs program had 4,500 applicants last year for 2,500 slots. This year, the program will focus on teens at or below the poverty line and limit jobs to one teen per household.
The Food Project, an urban farm in Boston that tries to hire a balance of urban and suburban teens, interviewed twice as many city youth for positions this summer as it did suburban teens. One year it had 300 urban teens for 37 spots, said spokeswoman Jen James.
One of the hurdles for teens is competition from older and more qualified workers. Clients of Covenant House, a youth social-services agency in New York, are competing for fast-food jobs against people who’ve been to college.
“It’s a buyer’s market,” said Bruce Henry, the agency’s director. “People are demanding higher levels.”
Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee worked as a paperboy and as a ballpark usher during summers when he was a teen. When he talks about his city’s summer jobs program, two stories haunt him.
A day and a half after the mayor met with a group of kids taking part in the program, one of them was murdered.
Another time, a TV reporter asked a boy he had interviewed about a summer job whether his family would watch the newscast. The boy demurred — he was homeless.
“For some of the kids, it’s a pretty fragile existence,” Barrett said. “Anything we can do to break out of a cycle of poverty or hopelessness is something I’m very interested in doing.”
In New York, teens who complete the jobs-program application, including a résumé and reference letter, are chosen by lottery and given tickets to a job fair and a list of employers, from day camps to Curves gym.
The winners are guaranteed a job somewhere. At a recent job fair sponsored by the Center for Family Life in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, Mary Chen, 17, left with a promise of a minimum-wage job at a CVS drugstore.
Last summer, she worked at a physician’s office and spent part of her savings on an electronic massage chair for her parents. Her hours at CVS won’t conflict with her 40 hours a week in summer school, studying finance.
So, first CVS, then Wall Street?
“Gotta climb the ladder,” she said.
And Theodor Gervais of Brooklyn, new to the program, had a plan: He’d apply at the day-care center in his neighborhood, which he walks by every day. It’s safe, it’s indoors and it looks like fun.
“I see the kids have a good time, and I always wanted to work with kids,” he said.
He was taking no chances. He may have been the only boy at the job fair wearing a necktie. He was hired on the spot.