TOPICS > Economy

Teens Lose Out on Important Summer Jobs as Older Workers Fill Their Spots

July 29, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The geography of the job market has changed in the past decade. Jobs typically held by teens are now being filled by older workers. In Boston, some organizations are trying to mobilize America's unemployed youth and bring them into the professional labor market. Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports.
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GWEN IFILL: The summer has long been a time of the year when many teens can find temporary work. But those traditions have been upended of late, as NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman reports in the second of two stories on this portion of the struggling job market. It’s part of his ongoing reporting Making Sense of Financial News.

PAUL SOLMAN: After graduating from high school in a low-income part of Boston, Issifu Suhununu got a summer job at web retailer Wayfair.

ISSIFU SUHUNUNU, student: I wanted to get work at a place where I would just — that would help me in the long run.

PAUL SOLMAN: Suhununu heads to Centre College this fall on a full scholarship to study computer science and economics. Having moved here from Ghana last year, he feels incredibly lucky to have a job, even if just for the summer.

ISSIFU SUHUNUNU: There are no jobs for students in Ghana at all, because the adults are, like, competing for jobs. If you are in a different country and you look at America, America is like this God or something.

PAUL SOLMAN: You mean it’s like heaven here.

ISSIFU SUHUNUNU: Yes, that is how you see it.

PAUL SOLMAN:  Without folks to find and prep students like him, however, Suhununu probably wouldn’t have this job. Even in heavenly America, the teen unemployment rate is almost double what it was just 13 years ago.

NEIL SULLIVAN, Boston Private Industry Council: I think we’re in an uncorrected depression for teenage employment in America, and the only thing we can do that’s going to make a difference is mobilize the private sector to hire teenagers.

PAUL SOLMAN: As executive director of Boston’s nonprofit Private Industry Council, or the PIC, Neil Sullivan is trying to mobilize through his youth job program, because youth jobs, including those once the staple of teenage summers, are now being taken by older workers.

NEIL SULLIVAN: You have college students pressing down into a labor market that used to be for high school grads. You have high school grads pressing down into a labor market that used to be for teenagers and dropouts. The geography of the labor market changed, and 16-to-19-year-olds fell out of the equation.

PAUL SOLMAN: The PIC’s response is to prospect for ambitious urban teens like Suhununu, and then tout them to private firms like Wayfair.

NEIL SULLIVAN: We identify those teenagers who are ready to make a move. You know, that spark of motivation, you have to get it at that moment. And then we market them to employers in the professional labor market.

PAUL SOLMAN: Suhununu is one of two teens Wayfair’s Daniel Gerow hired through the PIC this summer. Firms like his have become increasingly selective.

DANIEL GEROW, Wayfair: We try to find people that are best in breed, if you will.

PAUL SOLMAN: Best in breed?

DANIEL GEROW: Yes. It is a challenge to get folks that do show an aptitude for learning and for understanding, and that’s really what’s most important to us. It’s that we can find someone that says, I may not know how to do this technically, or I may not know how to run that sequel query, but I understand the concepts that you’re talking about. And that is a definite challenge.

PAUL SOLMAN: Thanks to a citywide effort, Boston boasts more teen jobs per capita than any city in the country. This summer, the PIC alone lined up 3,000.

PROTESTER: What do we want?

PROTESTERS: Youth jobs!

PROTESTER: When do we want it?

PROTESTERS: Now!

PAUL SOLMAN: It’s taken strenuous politicking to gin up public funding and direct pleas from Boston’s mayor to recruit private employers.

MAYOR THOMAS MENINO, D-Boston: Hi. I’m Mayor Tom Menino. I’m asking you to hire a high school student for the summer.

PAUL SOLMAN: But despite a year-round focus, there are still substantially fewer jobs in Boston today than there were in the late ’90s.

THOMAS MENINO: Once January starts, my number one priority is getting summer jobs for young people.

PAUL SOLMAN: Eighteen-year-old John Tabares has one of those jobs in the mailroom of financial firm Eaton Vance. His family moved here from Colombia when he was five.

JOHN TABARES, student: It’s been very rough for us, but my parents never gave up. They kept working two jobs, three jobs.

PAUL SOLMAN: Tabares graduated from one of Boston’s most competitive public high schools, is headed to Northeastern University in the fall. But finding work still took a push from the PIC and the power of positive thinking from his school.

Before, when we were talking, you started to use the word hopefully about your future, and then you — you reworded the sentence.

JOHN TABARES: They kept telling us, never say hopefully. Always strive for what you want, because the people who succeed are the people that don’t doubt themselves.

PAUL SOLMAN: And don’t even say it out loud.

JOHN TABARES: Yes, don’t even say it out loud. And just keep striving for whatever you’re doing. Nothing is unreachable. There’s always a way.

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, maybe. Tabares had a 3.9 GPA, but he says most of his friends are jobless.

JOHN TABARES:  It’s not because they don’t want to. It’s because they haven’t gotten the right help. If you give a helping hand to any kid, they will take it, so…

PAUL SOLMAN: There aren’t enough helping hands.

JOHN TABARES:  Basically. They need people to guide them. They need someone. If it’s not there, nothing’s going to happen.

PAUL SOLMAN: That’s why Neil Sullivan has been working for the PIC for 20-plus years, during which time teen summer jobs have inexorably shrunk, jobs that are key, he says, to arming young Americans for the future.

NEIL SULLIVAN: It’s not just about reading and writing and mathematics, you know, in terms of being a productive employee, a professional, a manager. It’s about a set of skills that we learn experientially. We learn them on the workplace. So, if half as many teenagers in America are getting those experiences, it’s going to have a profound impact on the work force that’s transitioning to adulthood.

PAUL SOLMAN: Wayfair pays Issifu Suhununu $10 an hour. Is that an OK wage?

ISSIFU SUHUNUNU: That is way OK, because I try to convert it to like Ghanaian money, and I see, like, how do you make this amount of money in an hour? And that is like someone’s pay for a month who is a teacher or he has gone to graduate school.

PAUL SOLMAN: But that’s not why he feels blessed to be working this summer.

ISSIFU SUHUNUNU: Right now, the most important thing is the experience and the knowledge that I’m getting from the job. I got to make connections. I got to know how to use basic office tools and how to like relate with co-workers.

PAUL SOLMAN: Tabares is making $11 an hour. But he’s not in it for the money either.

JOHN TABARES:  I’m doing it to gain things that’s going to help me in the future, because I know that if in the future I graduate from — not if — but when I graduate from college, I will look for something that’s going to pay me more. And how did I get there? With the help of everyone, because of all the things that I’m learning at every single job.

PAUL SOLMAN: And, indeed, help from everyone may be necessary to put more of America’s 16-to-19-year-olds to work, since there are 17 million of them, and 12 million of them are jobless.