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Number of high-school students with jobs hits 20-year low

- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 24, 2012

Did somebody say McJobless?

The American job market is no place for students as the number of employed high schoolers has hit its lowest level in more than 20 years, according to new figures from the National Center for Education Statistics.

In 1990, 32 percent of high school students held jobs, versus just 16 percent now. Blame their elders.

Sectors that traditionally have offered teens their first paying gig — fast-food chains, movie theaters, malls and big-box retailers — have now become the last resorts for out-of-work college graduates or older Americans forced back into the labor force out of sheer financial necessity. The resulting squeeze has left students on the outside looking in.

"By definition, teenage workers get the jobs that are left over," said Charles Hirschman, a sociology professor at the University of Washington who has studied and written about student employment. "When you can't find someone else to bag your groceries or work construction, often teenagers are the labor force you can count on to pick up that slack for a low wage. But now, with the recession, everybody has moved down. Those jobs aren't going to teenagers."

The decline began in the 1990s, but accelerated in the past decade. It has grown worse since the dawn of the Great Recession, analysts say.

Local McDonald's managers, for example, are no longer forced to accept young workers who can show up after class. They now have the option to hire older employees with more experience and, in many cases, much more education.

"They think, 'I can hire this old guy instead. He already knows how to work, so we don't need to teach him,' " said Andrew Sum, director of Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies. "It's a real weakness in our labor market right now. We're going to need a big increase in demand to turn this around in the short run."

The crunch is also hitting college students. In 2000, 52 percent of full-time college students worked. That number has now fallen to 40 percent, the National Center for Education Statistics reports.

Some may interpret the NCES numbers as a sign that today's generation of young people simply has grown lazier, but analysts say that's not necessarily the case. It's their opportunity to work, not their desire, that has fallen off a cliff.

"Adolescents, like everybody else, like to spend money. If they have opportunities to work, even if it's at a local fast-food place, a lot of students would still do that so they can afford to buy new music and new clothes," Mr. Hirschman said.

For high schoolers, the dream of going to college also plays a role in low employment figures, according to specialists. Their desire to get straight A's and attend a prestigious university can lead them to spend all their time studying. Parents often encourage that type of laserlike focus on studies at the expense of getting that first job.

"Everybody wants to do it. Every positive thing in life is highly correlated with education. Most adolescents know that, and most parents know that," Mr. Hirschman said.

In the long run, the trend could produce more and more young adults who lack the basic skills, such as how to interact with a customer, gained while working early in life. The longer a young person goes without a job, Mr. Sum said, the less attractive he or she looks to employers.

"There's only one way you can learn how to work — you've got to work," he said.

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