Mouthwatering chocolates, rainbow lollipops, and bulk bins of candy make going to work pretty sweet for Norwood teen Melanie Noah, who works at Sugar Heaven in her hometown.
“I needed money so I went and looked at jobs that hire teens,” says Noah, 17. “I think you can find a job anywhere, there is no excuse to not have a job.”
Unless your excuse is that you’re a teenager. Then it might be challenging.
Though summer still seems a ways off, teens in hope of snagging a summer position are starting to look now, or they should be.
Not only are teens entering a working world plagued by the rising number of unemployed adults, where jobs are hard to come by, they are also facing an economy where employers may be less able to afford hiring teens — who could lack the experience they want or the professionalism they need — for a temporary position. A summer job costs an employer roughly $2,200, and, if it’s an expense a company can do without, in a struggling economy, it will.
In a recent report by the Youth Jobs Coalition — a network of youth and community groups from across the state who work to create employment for teens — the number of teens holding a job in an average month has fallen from 54 percent in 1999 to 27 percent in 2013, placing Massachusetts 31st among all states. Over the past 20 years, the decrease in youth employment has been a gradual shift, acute since the recession, according to Dan Gelbtuch, who founded and runs the Youth Jobs Coalition.
“In the ’80s, if [a teen] wanted to get a part-time job at Dunkin’ Donuts or an ice cream store, [they] could probably get it, it wasn’t difficult,” he said. “Those jobs are now being taken by adults, therefore teens are working on a smaller scale and finding a position is tough.”
Last month, teens organized by the Youth Jobs Coalition gathered at a City Hall rally to prod lawmakers to pass two youth jobs initiatives at a cost of $16 million.
Serving up soft serve at the local ice cream parlor used to be a rite of passage, especially in the summertime. But now teens are entering a labor market where nothing is guaranteed, and readiness alone is not enough.
“Not only have the job rates gotten worse, but teens aren’t prepared to go to work,” said Gelbtuch.
In order to combat the stuggling economy and resulting job market, teens need to approach summer employment the way they might approach college applications — with a set of skills and knowledge that will set them apart from the crowd.
In a 2012 report, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Task Force on Integrating College and Career Readiness detailed a plan to fight the lack of preparedness and give students the tools to obtain summer employment. It included a new curriculum, incorporating three areas of knowledge and skills students must show proficiency in before they graduate: traditional academics, workplace readiness, and personal and social development.
“Different schools are approaching employment differently,” said Gelbtuch. “The goal, of course, is to get teens thinking about careers so they can be driven to find quality jobs for the summer.”
Sarah McGowen, 17, found a job at a Needham toy shop, Learning Express. She’s been there for three years — and has since been promoted to team leader — and used what Gelbtuch calls a vital method to finding a job: networking, a skill adults know all about but that teens are having to grasp as well.
“One of my good family friends worked there and they really needed to hire someone,” said McGowen. “I went in, filled out an application, and was interviewed on the spot.”
Gelbtuch says an individual’s social connections can be of major assistance when scouring the job market for temporary positions.
“Young people with access to professional networks have an easier way of getting jobs,” he said. “That’s the best case, when a young person has a connection to a job.”
These connections, he said, can come from a wide range of sources. Aside from family, teens should reach out to friends, neighbors, community organizations, and school career or guidance counselors, many of whom work with students to build resumes and prepare for interviews.
“I think teens are sometimes a little too picky about what they want,” said McGowen. “At my school, the guidance counselor has a list of places that hire teenagers, so go to them, go to family friends and parents and don’t be afraid to ask around.”
However, adults don’t always have the advantage over a teen seeking similar jobs. With many employers turning to social media, from Twitter to Facebook to LinkedIn, to fill jobs, it’s one area where the more connected might have an edge.
Edward Lehar, 18, approached the Charlestown YMCA last summer among dozens of other hopeful candidates. But, unlike some of his competitors, his application listed a myriad of Red Cross certifications, including lifeguard, CPR, and first aid.
“You need to constantly obtain new skills if you want a job today,” Lehar said. “Throw a really wide net and don’t consider anything as beneath you.”
While the current employment statistics don’t leave much room to pick and choose, Gelbtuch says teens can be creative with how they market their skills.
“Learn to sell yourself outside of formal employment,” he said. “If you baby-sat, if you were the captain of your sports team, those can be considered experience.”
Jack Nardi, 17, landed his job as a camp counselor at the Needham YMCA over a year ago, coming with no formal training. But his involvement in high school sports and coaching younger teams proved his passion for working with kids.
“It really helped that I worked with this basketball camp for four years,” said Nardi. “I was good with the kids so I highlighted that.”
Local nonprofits, businesses, and community organizations also encourage teens to “be a part of the fabric of the community,” says Gelbtuch, who finds that teens he works with find entry-level internships or volunteer jobs for the summer that sometimes turn into paid positions during the school year.
“Usually you can find informal internships locally,” he said. “With this sort of thing, you have to be OK with the fact that you might not have a full-time position.”
An open eye, and open mind, he said, is key to finding work. Recently, local companies have partnered with schools to offer paid and volunteer jobs at hospitals, financial companies, and in environmental and science research organizations.
“Teens may think they need to be trained [in a field] but they don’t,” said Gelbtuch. “Even if you are just volunteering at first, you can show an employer that you are worth hiring and that could turn into a [permanent] job.”
Katy Rushlau can be reached at