Older workers muscling out teens for summer jobs

Because of the economy and lack of available architect positions, Victoria Schmitz, with a masters in Archetecture, has taken a summer job at Cheley Colorado Camps in Estes Park as an assistant cook.
Because of the economy and lack of available architect positions, Victoria Schmitz, with a masters in Archetecture, has taken a summer job at Cheley Colorado Camps in Estes Park as an assistant cook. Mara Auster/MCT

WASHINGTON — After three years of braving Alaska's minus 50-degree winter temperatures and round-the-clock summer sunshine, architect Victoria Schmitz is taking a break. She's going to summer camp for two months outside Boulder, Colo.

Schmitz, 34, won't spend her time horseback riding, hiking or canoeing in the scenic foothills of the Rocky Mountains, however. She'll be working from 6 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. serving meals to adolescent boys as an assistant cook in the camp kitchen.

Her summer foray into food service isn't by choice. It was the only job she could find, as so many companies have halted or postponed construction projects because of the recession.

"I'm the lunch lady. Hoagies and grinders and navy beans," Schmitz said, in a sly reference to the old Adam Sandler-Chris Farley skit from "Saturday Night Live."

Across the country, the job shortage has created a buyers' market for traditional summer employers who can now pick from an abundance of laid-off and older workers, such as Schmitz, whose experience, reliability and hunger make them more attractive as short-term seasonal hires.

However, the added competition has left the nation's teenagers facing the worst summer jobs outlook in more than 60 years as millions of 16- to 19-year-olds must compete with better-qualified workers in the most depressed jobs market in decades.

While the long hours at Cheley Colorado Camps are similar to the ones Schmitz logged while she was helping to design the new Fairbanks International Airport in Alaska, there are no such similarities when it comes to her salary.

Schmitz's entire two-month stint at the camp won't pay as much as she made in one month as an architect. There are, however, other benefits.

"It's going to be a lot easier than meeting with community advisers and checking over structural designs," Schmitz said. "The only deadlines I'll have are breakfast, lunch and dinner. And at the end of the day, I've done my job. It's going to be a lot more mentally relaxing. I think everybody needs that once in a while."

Paul Weidig, Cheley's staff director, said there were so many out-of-work restaurant chefs that eight of 10 summer kitchen staffers had worked previously as cooks. That's a first, Weidig said. Usually, the jobs go to young people and teens with little or no cooking experience.

"Employers are thinking 'If I can hire an adult who's at least a proven worker, why would I hire a high school kid?' So the job market for teenagers is going to be very soft this summer," said Andrew Kehow, an economist at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va.

Last year, only 32.7 percent of U.S. teens ages 16 through 19 held summer jobs, the lowest level since the government started tracking the data in 1948, said Andrew Sum, the director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.

With jobs still scarce, the teen employment rate probably will hit a new low of about 30 percent this summer, Sum said.

That figure doesn't include some 400,000 to 500,000 low-income teens who are expected to get summer jobs thanks to $1.2 billion in stimulus funds for youth job programs.

However, Sum said that these jobs — some of which will go to adults ages 20 to 24 — will boost teen summer-employment rates only by another 1 to 1.5 percent, which, if accurate, would still be a 61-year low.

"All the reports from the field are that (teens) are at the back of the hiring queues," Sum said. "We've talked to amusement parks, hotels, motels. They don't even want to take their applications, because they've got hundreds from people 30 to 55 years old."

Kings Dominion amusement park near Richmond, Va., typically hires about 2,500 people each summer. This year, it's received three times the usual number of applications, and the median age of job seekers has jumped to roughly 25 to 26 years old from 18 to 22 years old.

"That's a significant jump within a year," said John Pagel, the park's marketing manager.

Because labor laws restrict the hours that teens can work, the older applicants often are preferred, Pagel said.

"They're getting a job to pay the bills and put gas in the car and put food on the table, so they're showing up for work on time. They're looking for extra hours. And they have more experience and more interpersonal skills," Pagel said. "So it's definitely a benefit to us and our guests, because we feel that they're getting a better product with these folks."

In the Cape Cod resort town of Barnstable, Mass., college graduates and early retirees are getting a larger share of the 600 recreation department summer jobs that local teens typically covet. Again, the older applicants' greater experience has made a noticeable difference.

"They're more outgoing and friendly," said Patti Machado, Barnstable's assistant recreation director in charge of programs. "You can tell they really want the job. They really want to be here."

After 40 teachers were laid off because of budget cuts, six were hired as beach gate attendants for the summer, Machado said. They'll share the same duties as their teen colleagues.

"We like them to work side by side. It's a wonderful intergenerational teaching tool. It prepares the younger kids to be ready for the work force," Machado said.

As with most summer jobs, Machado said, the pay is low, ranging from about $13 an hour down to the minimum wage, which jumps from $6.50 an hour to $7.25 on July 24.

The increase will be the last of three scheduled rate hikes since 2007, which will have raised the floor wage by 41 percent from $5.15 an hour.

Among teens who earned hourly wages last year, 11 percent earned the minimum wage or less. Sum said that numerous studies had shown that the higher minimum wage hurt teen employment prospects and this summer's increase would be no different.

"It's a jobs killer for teens," Sum said.

However, low wages haven't deterred adults from going after summer jobs that typically go to teens and early twentysomethings.

Tom Sawyer Camps in Pasadena, Calif., received summer job applications from teachers, a lawyer, a Harvard master's-degree holder and a retired software engineer from the aerospace industry, camp executive director Sarah Horner said.

Only the Harvard grad was hired, because the camp's 130 summer positions had been filled by April, several months earlier than usual, Horner said.

It's the same thing at Cheley Colorado Camps, which canceled several group-interview sessions for summer positions because of a deluge of job applications.

Schmitz said she was hoping that more design work would open up by summer's end, but until then, her summer camp job would provide a fix for her Alaskan-born love of the outdoors.

"Once you live in Alaska, it really does change your life," she said.


To ask a question about this story or any economic question, go to McClatchy's economy Q&A

What's next for a humbled GM after its bankruptcy?

What did GM's bondholders get? Equivalent of a toy pony

Follow the latest politics news at McClatchy's Planet Washington

Climate and energy bill faces hurdles when Congress returns

Fate of Obama health care plan is anything but certain

Obama seeks funding cuts for wave, tidal energy research

Related stories from McClatchy DC