The Myth Of the Summer Job

July 15th 2015

"What did you do all summer?"

This shouldn't seem like a scary question, but in fall 2007, it made my palms sweat. A college sophomore who made the mistake of signing up for Greek life rush (a year too late at that), I had no idea what to say when a series of confident, perfectly manicured sorority sisters inquired how I had spent the last three months. I'd tried and failed to land a summer job, as no one wanted to hire me for such a short period of time.

Though I was a dedicated movie theater worker in high school, my former boss said it wouldn't be fair to bring me on for the summer and snatch all the good shifts from his current employees. It was easy for some to chalk my struggles up to laziness and a lack of assertiveness. Some encouraged me to lie to potential employers about my availability, but I didn't want to burn bridges and hurt someone else's business, so after two months of unsuccessful searching, I resigned to a low-key summer at home.

It was nice to catch up on rest and devote an hour each day to exercise, but I experienced some serious summertime blues eight years ago, and that ruined any slim chance I had of getting into a sorority house. My mom said I would look back on that sleepy summer with envy once life became crazy again, but even now, I remember the painful feeling of wanting to make money and maximize my time, yet lacking the ability to do so. The tweets below still hit close to home:

In his NAACP speech Tuesday, President Barack Obama emphasized that the cost of employing struggling teens during the summer is cheaper than having them wind up in prison:

According to a Pew Research Center report, less than a third of teens held a job in summer 2014. Studying nearly 70 years of data, Pew found that teen summer employment often rises when the market is strong and dips during and after rough economic times. Then, following the 1990-1991 recession, the teen summer employment rate bounced back. It dropped again in the 2001 recession and even more so during the 2007-2008 financial crisis. In 2014, the teen employment rate was a measly 31.3 percent. In June, 32.1 percent of 16 to 19-year-olds had overall employment, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

The Pew reported that this reflects the larger issue of declining youth employment, citing several reasons researchers think young people can't get jobs:

"[F]ewer low-skill, entry-level jobs than in decades past; more schools restarting before Labor Day; more students enrolled in high school or college over the summer; more teens doing unpaid community service work as part of their graduation requirements or to burnish their college applications; and more students taking unpaid internships."

A 2014 report from consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., found teen hiring fell 15 percent from the previous June:

Teen jobs in the summerWSJ via the Labor Department and Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. -

Two months ago, however, a new Challenger report predicted a better economic climate for teens this summer, as there were more employed teens in May 2015 than the year earlier.

"While many summer jobs have already been filled, it is never too late to start or renew one’s job search," CEO John A. Challenger said in a news release. "There usually is high turnover in the types of jobs occupied by teenagers. Retail, restaurant service, amusement parks, etc., may continue hiring throughout the summer to replace people who quit or were let go for whatever reason. Do not be afraid to return to employers that may have already turned you down for a job. Lastly, look for opportunities to sub in for workers who may be taking summer trips with their family. If you can get a referral from a current worker, it could ease your way into the position."

Waiting for people to lose their jobs or jump ship might ultimately prove to be a waste of time, though. If employers are on the fence about hiring you because they want someone to work for more than three months, they are probably going to hesitate about taking you on for even less time than that. Bosses can also fill in employee vacation gaps by giving current workers the extra hours. It's a lot cheaper than hiring someone else for just a few shifts.

Earlier this year, Drexel University released a summer jobs outlook for 2015, and while the prospects are better now than they were during previous summers, economist Ishwar Khatiwada said the result was still a letdown.

“The small gain in the share of teens who will work this summer is less than we might have hoped,” Khatiwada said. “The nation has added an average of well over 200,000 jobs a month in the past year, but the summer job prospects for teens remain well below those we would expect in a near full employment environment.”

Khatiwada added that the benefits of holding summer work are vast for young people.

"Working as a teen is more than just about earnings," Khatiwada said. "The evidence is clear that there are important and lasting long-term gains in employment, earnings and even college enrollment and completion for kids who work."

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