MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris. The latest report from the Labor Department dropped unemployment down a notch - one-tenth of a percentage point. But the new numbers also showed that teen unemployment is still on the rise. It's now at 25 percent and here in the nation's capital, that rate is much higher. At almost 50 percent this summer, it's the highest in the country. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang spoke with unemployed teens in Washington, D.C.
HANSI LO WANG: Sixteen-year-old Jacquan Clark would have liked a job this summer, but he says the competition is brutal.
JACQUAN CLARK: It's like crabs in a barrel. You know, like, we're trying to all get jobs, but we're also pulling each other back because we want the jobs and our friends need it, we need it.
LO WANG: He applied for jobs through Washington, D.C.'s summer youth employment program, which pays local teens to work in government agencies and local businesses. This summer, the government-funded program placed 14,000 D.C. teens in jobs, but Clark didn't make the cut. And that could affect his whole future.
CLARK: I'm going into my senior year, so it's like, how am I supposed to, like, help gather the extra money to go to college?
LO WANG: Clark's been volunteering in a youth theater program this summer, earning experience but no pay. His father is a public safety officer at a D.C. university, and the only full-time income earner in their family of four. With no summer income, Clark says he's worried about paying for college application fees this fall.
Michael Saltsman is a research fellow at the business-backed Employment Policies Institute, and he says teens like Jacquan Clark have been facing a new norm for the summer job search ever since the recession began.
MICHAEL SALTSMAN: Someone that started as a freshman back in, say, 2007 has never known anything other than a job market where they look for work for weeks and haven't been able to find something.
POST: The teen unemployment rate has been above 20 percent in other years since 1981, but 1981 was the last time the rate remained elevated for a prolonged period of time.]
LO WANG: According to last month's jobs report, the national teen unemployment rate is about 25 percent. Saltsman says the last time teen unemployment ticked above 20 percent was in 1981, but the rate fell below that level just over two years later. This summer, teens around the country have faced the third summer in a row of teen unemployment above 20 percent. And Saltsman says this trend is likely to continue.
SALTSMAN: It's tempting to look at the teen unemployment rate and sort of shrug and assume that it's bad, but the only consequence is, is that maybe the parents are giving them money to go out to the movies this summer instead of the kids earning the money themselves.
LO WANG: But working a summer job as a teen is not just about earning extra spending money. Saltsman says it's also about learning skills so you can become a good worker later in your adult life.
SALTSMAN: The risk is that, if they miss out on that, that they become part of this lost generation of teens who never had a chance to get a foothold to take that first step on the career ladder, on to do something greater.
LO WANG: Studies showed the discouraged teenaged job seeker can grow up to become a discouraged adult worker who's more likely to be underpaid and even unemployed.
LEQUESHA BARNES: I feel like there are so many young adults and young people who don't want to try to get jobs because they've been turned down so many times.
LO WANG: Nineteen-year-old Laquesha Barnes lives in Washington, D.C. She says she applied to supermarkets and clothing stores but didn't land a summer job, so she decided to volunteer instead. But Barnes says some of her friends are wasting away their summers.
BARNES: I know, like, my friend isn't working. And she sits at home and does nothing all day but watch TV and like, "CSI" and stuff like that. And I wish there were more opportunities, especially for young people.
LO WANG: Opportunities like this youth-produced musical Barnes and Jacquan Clark have been working on since June.
(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)
CLARK: (Singing) I'm going to win. Don't count me out.
LO WANG: Laquesha Barnes is one of the cast members in the musical. And she says she may not be working this summer, but she doesn't plan on being counted out in the future. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Washington.