Experts see trouble ahead for teens entering work world

LAS VEGAS -- Kylie Sandberg spent many days last summer sleeping until 10 a.m., heading off to the gym and hanging with friends.

Her friend, Tina Taylor, had a similar routine after running early in the morning with her cross country teammates.

Both 16-year-olds wound up taking the summer off despite parental pressure. They applied for jobs, they said, but employers never called them.

Summer used to be the best time for teens to snag that first job. But Sandberg and Taylor are among growing numbers of 16- to 19-year-olds nationwide opting not to take work behind counters of fast-food restaurants or as community pool lifeguards.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the proportion of teens working or actively seeking work is typically highest in July. But there's been a substantial decline since 2000, dropping to 41.2 percent this year.

It's not just a summer phenomenon. The annual average percentage of teenagers in the work force has stayed below 50 percent since 2001.

The trend troubles some labor experts who say getting a late start developing work habits and job skills will compound a shortage of qualified workers as baby boomers retire.

Some employers already take a dim view of newcomers to the labor market.

A report released last fall titled "Are They Really Ready to Work?" concludes that the future U.S. work force is "woefully" ill-prepared for the demands of the current and future workplace.

The report, conducted by four major groups, was based on a survey of 431 companies that collectively employ more than

2 million Americans.

A majority of employers deemed high school graduates deficient in basics such as written English and math, and in applied skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, professionalism and work ethic.

Nearly 76 percent of employers said preparation was the responsibility of schools, from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Fewer placed the burden on four-year and two-year colleges.

Almost half said the responsibility falls to the new workers themselves, while

19 percent said it was up to employers, and more than

11 percent pointed to the business community at large. Parents were not listed as a choice.

Some employers give teen workers more positive reviews.

Suzanne Infurno, manager of a supermarket, said she specifically seeks teen workers, who must be at least 16.

"I found that they are very dependable and have such great energy," Infurno said.

Their shortcomings are infrequent and minor, she said, such as forgetting when they are supposed to work or forgetting to tuck in their shirts.

Clark County Parks and Recreation depends heavily on teen hires for its summer recreation program. The department typically hires up to 250 seasonal staff workers, most of whom are high school or college age.

It found a way around its declining labor pool by slightly raising wages and lowering the working age to 15½.

Jessica Ralles, who heads the county's summer aquatics program, said while seasonal employees are high achievers, said some take their jobs less seriously. They show up late or gab with friends in staff areas where they are not allowed.

"Basically, they don't work for us for very long," Ralles said. "A few every summer have to be fired."

Some teens said they face a Catch-22 dilemma: They can't get a job without experience, but they can't get experience without a job.

Some choose to volunteer or attend school year-round, and demographic forces add competition from immigrants and workers 55 and older.

Travis Brewer, a 17-year-old high school senior, worked full time during the summer at an animal hospital but had to scale back his work hours during school and now works weekends. He also does volunteer work for charities.

"With my parents, school comes first," he said. "We tried it another way, working four nights a week during school, and it didn't work."

Brewer said he worked last year to help his family with financial struggles. He also is saving for college.

Many of his friends who took summer jobs later quit because they wanted to enjoy time off school, he said.

"The ones who really want a job, they can get a job," he said. "The ones who don't, they are expecting, without any experience, better jobs."

Statistics say teen participation in the work force has trended downward since the late 1970s.

In 1948, when the federal government began tracking the youth labor market, 53 percent of teenagers worked or sought work. In 2006, the figure was 43.7 percent.

Jeff Waddoups, associate economics professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said the trend is understandable, given that the wages teens usually earn in low-skill jobs haven't kept pace with inflation.

In April, the Economic Policy Institute reported the cost of living had risen 26 percent since September 1997, while the minimum wage had fallen in real value to its lowest level since 1955.

Investing in education is a better long-term choice, Waddoups said, because it can increase teens' earning power down the road.

"They have other options, so what employers interpret as teens not having a work ethic is just people responding to economic incentives," he said.

Waddoups said he was not sure the kinds of jobs teenagers usually take, such as flipping hamburgers or bagging groceries, provide valuable experience.

Labor statistics show that on school days, employed high schoolers spend an average of 42 fewer minutes on educational activities and sleep 36 fewer minutes than their nonworking peers.