Working as a lifeguard or behind the concession stand was once a summer rite of passage. But these days, teens are lucky to find such work, or any work.
The percentage of teens who work during the summer has dropped to 34 percent, a decline of 20 percentage points since 1995, a near-record low, according to research from J.P. Morgan Chase. Its survey of 15 summer youth programs in major American cities found that demand continues to exceed available job openings.
A summer job is more than a way for teens to earn extra money, noted Chauncy Lennon, who leads JPMorgan Chase's workforce initiatives program. Working during school breaks can help teens gain important skills for their careers and help ease the way into full-time work once they've graduated.
Yet even though the labor market is tightening, many employers continue to have plenty of choice in hiring, given that older, more skilled workers are still returning to the job market after the recession. On top of that, some employers say many teens lack the basic skills needed to succeed, such as communication.
"Employers are looking for people with specific experience, more maturity and more education," Lennon said. "That's part of why young people are having more difficulty. With the instability in the job market, you're seeing older people in some of the jobs we think of as typical summer employment opportunities."
Only about four out of 10 teens and young adults who are looking for summer jobs were able to find work through 18 summer employment programs in the 15 cities surveyed by JPMorgan Chase. The firm has invested about $6 million during the past two years to support summer youth employment programs.
"Young people are combining work and education," Lennon added. "Most people take longer to complete post-secondary education than the elite model tells us," such as the four-year path to earning an undergraduate degree.
The majority of teens don't go on to college, which puts more pressure on them to find summer work and learn the skills they'll need after high school to secure a better-paying job. The key to finding a job is having work experience, which can become a Catch-22 for teens who are struggling to find that first summer job.
Part of the problem is that many teens don't have what Lennon calls "foundation" skills. Unfortunately, many high schools aren't doing a good job of teaching their students these basics, which may seem simpler than computer skills or math proficiency, but which can be just as important to employers.
"In the service sector, the kinds of skills you need to succeed are around communication, team work, grit and problem solving," he said. "Employers would say that's lacking."
Youth funding from the Department of Labor has decreased by about 33 percent since 2000, declining from $1.25 billion to $831 million, JPMorgan found. But at the same time, demand for middle-skill jobs, or work that requires some training after high school but not necessarily a college degree, is expected to pick up. Almost two-thirds of jobs in the U.S. will require some postsecondary education by 2025, compared with about one-quarter in the 1970s, according to its research.
"If you're at a poor-quality college-prep high school, you aren't being prepared for college, and you aren't being prepared for a career," Lennon said.
His tips for finding summer work: Ask a wide network of people, including neighbors, acquaintances, classmates and friends if they know about opportunities. Sometimes weaker social ties can turn up good leads, Lennon said, citing research from the Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter, who wrote a paper called "The Strength of Weak Ties."
Said Lennon: "It's a tried and true way of doing it."