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A faltering national economy and cuts to summer job programs leave teenagers locally and across the nation with the worst summer job market in 40 years

The Buffalo News

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July 9, 2003

News Business Reporter

Matthew Deschamps has worked as a pizza cook in three different Buffalo restaurants, a fair amount of work experience for a 17-year-old.

That's why it's frustrating for him to have to send out more than 30 applications to restaurants, supermarkets and other companies and hear the same response from each: "We'll call you when something opens up."

"I think it's a lot harder this summer," said Deschamps, who is entering his senior year at South Park High School. "A lot of kids are staying at the same jobs they had this year. My friends and I are looking at roofing and landscaping-type jobs, something temporary for now."

Deschamps' situation is typical of many teens this summer in Western New York and across the nation, as they face the worst summer job market in nearly 40 years, according to a study commissioned by the National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education and Families.

The study, prepared by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, says 37.3 percent of teens were employed between January and April of this year, an 8 percent decrease from the same period two years ago.

That weakening teen employment rate, as well as a faltering national economy and cuts to summer job programs, are evidence of the worst market for teenagers in decades.

As high schools let out for the summer last month, the national unemployment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds rose 0.8 of a percentage point to 19.3 percent, as 611,000 people, many of them teenagers, entered the labor market but were unable to find work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The national teen jobless rate for June -- which, unlike the lower federal figure, includes those who have given up looking for work -- rose to 59.1 percent, the highest June unemployment rate in 55 years and the highest ever for a summer month, according to an analysis of labor statistics by the Children's Defense Fund. Among minorities, teen unemployment was even higher, with 78.3 percent of black and 68.4 percent of Latino teens without work.

For teens like Kristen Brent, who admits she may have started late in looking for jobs after her junior year at Williamsville East High School, the flooded teen market means giving up on the numerous applications she sent out to stores along Transit Road, and accepting whatever comes up.

"I'm pretty desperate right now. I'd wash dishes, I'd clean toilets, I'd do anything," Brent said.

College students are also feeling the effects of the diminished summer job market, said Stephanie Zuckerman-Aviiles, director of career development at Buffalo State College. More students are either sticking with the part-time jobs they kept in high school and throughout last year, or are traveling and studying abroad, Zuckerman-Aviiles said.

Morgan O'Donnell, 20, of Buffalo, is one of the lucky ones. An advertising major at West Virginia University, she returned this summer to claim her job at Sweet Tooth on Elmwood Avenue.

O'Donnell, who has been working for Sweet Tooth during Christmas and summer breaks since May 2002, said she's thankful that she didn't have to deal with the stress of a summer job search.

"I have to work during the summer to pay for my apartment, books and bills," said O'Donnell. "I like to work here. . . . It's fun, I get to meet a lot of different people who come into the shop."

Anna Hejmanowski, a sophomore education major at D'Youville College, had worked as a gymnastics instructor at the Southtowns YMCA branch for the last six summers, but the construction of a new facility this year left her without a definite job and looking for work. She was one of around 200 applicants to the recently opened Build-A-Bear Workshop, which hired about 30 employees when it opened in May.

"I wanted to stay with jobs involving children, and I figured Build-A-Bear was the best job out there right now," said Hejmanowski. "I'd have liked to stay at the after-school program, but they couldn't be sure they'd have a job for me."

Buffalo State's Center for Excellence in Urban and Rural Education normally provides around 100 education students part-time jobs in Buffalo city schools through its Summer in the City program, giving them teaching experience beyond their traditional student teaching internship, said Wynnie Fisher, the program's director.

This year, however, a political battle between Gov. George E. Pataki and the State Legislature held up $25 million in federal funding for 25,000 summer jobs, mainly for underprivileged youth, until late June, and the Summer in the City program didn't receive funding early enough to set up positions for its members, Fisher said.

"It's really more of a loss for the city. The students get familiarized with an urban setting, and the majority come out loving the city of Buffalo and wanting to teach here," Fisher said.

Jeff Nixon, director of the city's summer youth employment training program, said nearly 800 children, aged 14 to 17, would have lost on-the-job training opportunities this summer if state funding hadn't come through, but the program "made some optimistic planning ahead" and assumed the funds would come through.

While the studies and figures may look grim, John Slenker, the State Labor Department's regional economist in Buffalo, believes there are plenty of jobs for teenagers in the area.

Restaurants, especially those with outdoor patios, parks and retail outlets are where the majority of teen jobs are every summer, and all experience turnover, even in a depressed economy, Slenker said.

"Teens can still find their niche this summer. It's tighter than it has been, but the jobs are still out there," Slenker said.

Six Flags Darien Lake hires 2,400 people each summer, 55 to 60 percent of whom are under 21, said Eileen Pozda, director of human resources. While the number of adults and seniors looking to supplement their income or replace depleted retirement savings has increased this year, almost any teenager has a shot at a position, Pozda said.

"I don't care how old you are, if your application is complete and your dress is a bit nicer than most kids, we'll hire you," said Pozda.

Deschamps, who filled out more than 10 applications Monday at Walden Galleria, said he is still holding out for a job, but may have to delay plans to purchase a car next year.

"I'm trying to be hopeful, but it might be too late now," Deschamps said. "Pretty soon, I'm going to have to do anything I can to get some money."

News Staff Reporter Jazmyn Burton contributed to this report.