The state’s unemployment rate has dropped to its lowest point in 15 years. “Help Wanted” signs hang outside big box retailers and Tatiana Abreu knows it should be easier to find a summer job.
But after the high school junior applied to several retailers in the South Bay Center near her Dorchester home, including a grocery store and a national clothing chain, nothing. No calls back. No requests for interviews.
“It’s depressing,” Abreu said of her job search.
By most measures the dynamic Massachusetts labor market is at full employment. The state has added nearly 36,000 jobs just in the last four months and the state’s unemployment rate has fallen to 4.2 percent, lower than the nationwide rate of 5 percent. But teenagers, particularly those in urban areas, have been left out of the state’s economic turnaround.
Last year 26.3 percent of Massachusetts teens between the ages of 16 to 19 held jobs annually, compared with 36.1 percent in 2008 and more than half a decade earlier.
Employment for other age groups in Massachusetts is either close to 2008 levels, or in the case of adults 65 or older, better than before the financial crisis, according to a study by the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute.
Economists and youth advocates expect that teens may have a slightly easier time finding a job this summer, whether as a camp counselor, sales clerk, or office intern, because the teen employment rate nationwide is expected to rise to 29.8 percent from 28.1 percent in 2015, according to Drexel University’s Center for Labor Markets and Policy.
Still, that’s far below the 40 percent of teens who were employed during the summer of 2006.
For many, the prospects remain dim that they will be able to earn their first paycheck, supplement their family’s income, or get some experience in the working world.
“We used to be able to go to the [mall] with students and leave with at least eight jobs,” said Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, which works with businesses to employ teens in the summer. “That market slipped and then collapsed. We’re not going to get the lift from the labor market.”
The changing retail landscape hasn’t helped, with many brick-and-mortar stores struggling with falling profits and a need to cut expenses. Technology and an expanding older workforce have also limited opportunities for teens, economists say.
But the prospects are brighter in tourist-heavy communities, such as those on Cape Cod, where the 100,000-person workforce grows by as much as a quarter in the summer. The Cape’s aging population, expensive housing, and limited public transportation has forced employers and even labor officials to recruit on college campuses and travel to Puerto Rico in search of workers for the restaurants and hotels, said David Augustinho, the executive director of the Cape & Islands Workforce Investment Board.
“Our labor shortages are good for potential teen workers. The ones who are looking for jobs should be able to find them,” he said.
Teens in Boston are more reliant on structured jobs programs managed by city governments and nonprofits. Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh has set a goal of placing 11,000 youths in jobs this summer. Last year his summer employment campaign placed 10,360 teens, many in city agencies and nonprofits, but also in financial firms and biotech companies.
Sullivan, with the Boston Private Industry Council, said recruiting employers can be challenging and requires lobbying company officials and ensuring teens are ready for the job.
Even so, increasingly, entry level jobs that teens often took in the summer, such as filing or working at a grocery checkout counter, are automated or computerized.
And since the recession, the number of retirement-age adults, those older than 65, remaining in the workforce has risen sharply. In Massachusetts last year, about 23 percent of adults over 65 were working, up from about 17 percent in 2008.
Some older people keep working because they can’t afford to retire, while others want to remain active, said Mark Melnik, a UMass economist. “There’s a clear competition in the labor market where inexperienced workers are being passed over,” he said.
Fred Goff, the chief executive officer of jobcase.com, a Cambridge company that connects workers and employers in lower-skilled fields, said teens increasingly have to rely on their parents’ network or establish their own connections within the community to find work, instead of simply filling out an application, Goff said.
That can be harder for minority teens and those from low-income families, who in many cases need summer jobs to help support their families.
For 18-year-old Abreu, a summer job offers the potential to turn into something more: part-time work during the school year.
“I’m looking for something more permanent,” she said. “I’m sick of just the seasonal stuff.”