Once a rite of passage to adulthood, summer jobs for teens are disappearing.
Fewer than three in 10 American teenagers now hold jobs such as running cash registers, mowing lawns or busing restaurant tables from June to August. The decline has been particularly sharp since 2000, with employment for 16-to-19-year-olds falling to the lowest level since World War II.
And teen employment may never return to prerecession levels, suggests a projection by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The drop in teen employment, steeper than for other age groups, is partly a cultural shift. More youths are spending summer months in school, at music or learning camps or in other activities geared for college. But the decline is especially troubling for teens for whom college may be out of reach, leaving them increasingly idle and with few options to earn wages and job experience.
Older workers, immigrants and debt-laden college graduates are taking away lower-skill work as they struggle to find their own jobs in the weak economy. Upper-income white teens are three times as likely to have summer jobs as poor black teens, sometimes capitalizing on their parents' social networks for help.
Overall, more than 44 percent of teens who want summer jobs don't get them or work fewer hours than they prefer.
"It's really frustrating," said Colleen Knaggs, describing her fruitless efforts to find work for the past two years. The 18-year-old graduated from high school last week in Flagstaff, Ariz., the state that ranks highest in the share of U.S. teens who are unable to get the summer work they desire, at 58 percent.
Wanting to be better prepared to live on her own and to save for college, Knaggs says she submitted a dozen applications for summer cashier positions. She was turned down for what she believes was her lack of connections and work experience. Instead of working this summer, she'll now be baby-sitting her 10-year-old brother, which has been the extent of her work so far, aside from volunteering at concession stands.
"I feel like sometimes they don't want to go through the training," said Knaggs, who is now bracing for a heavier debt load when she attends college in the fall.
Economists say teens who aren't getting jobs are often those who could use them the most. Many are not moving on to more education.
"I have big concerns about this generation of young people," said Harry Holzer, labor economist and public policy professor at Georgetown University. He said the income gap between rich and poor is exacerbated when lower-income youths who are less likely to enroll in college are unable to get skills and training.
Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, said better job pathways are needed for teens who don't attend four-year colleges, including paid internships for high school seniors and increased post-secondary training in technical institutes.
About 5.1 million, or just 29.6 percent, of 16-to-19 year olds were employed last summer. Adjusted for seasonal factors, the rate dips to 25.7 percent. In 1978, the share reached a peak of nearly 60 percent before waves of immigration brought in new low-skill workers.