Labor Dept. Job Hunting For Youths

This is the time of year when college students mount their push for summer jobs. This year, the U.S. Labor Department is trying to help them by asking employers to hire 100,000 workers between the ages of 16 and 24. Some of the companies that have signed on include UPS, Research in Motion and Wells Fargo.

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Low-wage jobs were often filled by young people. But when the recession hit, many of them were squeezed out by adults seeking any work they could get. As the economy improves, there's hope that some entry-level jobs filled by over-qualified adults will open up to teens.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates examines the prospects for this summer's job market.

KAREN GRISBY BATES: This used to be a common summer job experience when you were somewhere between 16 and, say, 20.

Unidentified Woman: All right, that's going to be $4.05 at the next window. Thank you.

BATES: Between July and September, you worked at a fast food joint, or maybe bagged groceries somewhere. But if lately you've been thinking that your bag boy looks a little long in the tooth, it's probably because he is.

Kuleima Blueford is an employment officer for the Los Angeles Urban League, and she says the disappearance of entry-level jobs teens used to take for granted has become a nasty reality as adults claim them.

Ms. KULEIMA BLUEFORD (Employment Officer, Los Angeles Urban League): As a result of the economic downturn, we had higher-level individuals that found themselves unemployed. And so was it was, it was literally a domino effect. Because they began to settle for lower-wage jobs, which pushed everybody else down a notch.

BATES: And which often left teens, especially those in ethnic communities, with no notch at all.

So when McDonald's held a National Hiring Day this past Tuesday to fill 50,000 jobs, it resulted in a deluge of would-be employees ready to put on aprons and ask if you want to be supersized.

And it's not just burger palaces. Lowe's and Home Depot are hiring thousands of people, mostly for seasonal or temporary work. And banks, once shunned by everyone but business majors as too boring to consider, suddenly have become very attractive.

Ms. PAT CALLAHAN (Chief Administrative Officer, Wells Fargo Bank): I don't know that it's the worst year ever. But certainly anecdotally, we have a lot of applicants on the campuses. And when we post jobs on WellsFargo.com, there are times when we can get hundreds of applicants for an individual job.

BATES: Pat Callahan is chief administrative officer at Wells Fargo, one of the country's biggest banks. Her company is hiring 1,000 young people around the country to work in various capacities this summer. They're happy to help the U.S. Labor Department's goal of getting the private sector to make 100,000 hires, but Callahan says this isn't a new initiative for her bank.

Ms. CALLAHAN: I actually had my first job in a bank summer intern program in 1976. It wasn't Wells Fargo, but banks have traditionally had summer intern programs and Wells Fargo is certainly among them, and has been hiring summer people for quite a long time.

BATES: So the private sector seems not to be the problem.

Mr. JOHN CHALLENGER (CEO, Challenger, Gray & Christmas): The big issue is that government, which often sponsors teen programs that provide many people with their first jobs, just does not have the funds available and a lot of those programs are being cut.

BATES: John Challenger is the CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. The Chicago-based corporation is the largest outplacement specialist in the country.

Challenger says more jobs opening up at the entry level might actually be filled by teens, as older people leave for more lucrative employment elsewhere. And while working the fry basket or filling popcorn buckets at the movies might not be lifetime employment, John Challenger says for teens, jobs like those are essential introductions to the working world.

Mr. CHALLENGER: They teach people about reliability, about being on time, give them good customer service skills. So it's a good sign that we're starting to see instead of big mega-layoff announcements - like we always talked about a couple of years ago - these big hiring announcements.

BATES: And he's betting that, because of the recovering economy, some of those people who are going to be hired are young people who will have a crack at their first real job.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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