Summer jobs for teens are an endangered species worth saving.
These seasonal jobs offer more than a paycheck. Summer employment can:
•Improve academic performance, especially among lower-income teens.
•Teach important employment skills, including teamwork and problem-solving.
•Give teens real-world experience demonstrating a work ethic and satisfying bosses who expect them to earn every dollar.
"We don't naturally know how to be good employees," says Kathy Kristof, editor of SideHusl, a review site for part-time employment. "We learn, just like we learn the alphabet, with practice."
Summer jobs used to be where many teens learned those skills. The summer labor participation rate for teenagers peaked at nearly 72 percent in July 1978 and remained over 60 percent through the 1990s, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Now the teen labor participation rate is closer to 40 percent.
Economists point to several reasons for the drop in summer employment:
•Fewer jobs. Retail was once a reliable source of jobs for inexperienced workers, but many chains are shuttering brick-and-mortar stores or going out of business altogether as more shopping moves online.
•More competition. Older workers may be shouldering aside the young. For example, the percentage of food-preparation jobs held by teenagers has been declining, while the percentage held by those 20 to 34 and 55 or over is growing. Immigration appears to be affecting teen employment, as well. Federal Reserve economist Christopher L. Smith found that an increased population of lower-skilled immigrants had a bigger negative impact on youth employment than on adult employment.
•College concerns. Summer jobs can help high school and college students perform better in the classroom, according to recent research by Jacob Leos-Urbel, associate director of Stanford University's John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities. But parents are often convinced that summer school, volunteer work or internships will be more impressive on college applications than paid work.
Selective schools might value an internship in a potential career field over a job at a burger joint, says Lynn O'Shaughnessy, author of "The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price."
Most colleges, though, treat these various summer alternatives about equally when considering candidates, she says.
Where summer jobs can really help is in the job market after graduation. The jobs most teens work help them build "soft skills" that employers value and that lead to higher-paying careers.
Dealing with customers and co-workers helps them improve communication and problem-solving skills, for example, as well as staying calm under pressure. Dealing with a boss teaches the ability to accept and learn from criticism. Being responsible, meeting challenges and demonstrating good work habits can build self-confidence.
"You go to work, you work hard all day, you ask what you can do better, you go back and do it again, until it's so ingrained in your psyche that you can't imagine acting lackluster or disinterested," Kristof says.
This summer's job market is expected to be a good one, but teens are most likely to find positions in businesses that experience seasonal surges: movie theaters, amusement parks, hotels, construction and landscaping. "Where there are labor shortages, there will be opportunities," says Andrew Challenger, vice president of executive outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.