Tough times for teen jobseekers

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March 7, 2011
— Janesville teen Ashley Bridges has the can't-find-a-job blues.

Since she got her driver's license in October, she's applied for a half-dozen jobs in retail. Yet she hasn't gotten a single interview.

Bridges, 17, a junior at iQ Academy, an online school in Waukesha, said she wants to work in media or government someday.

But for now, her ideal job would be at an arts and crafts chain like Hobby Lobby, where she said she could put her creativity and love of decorating to use.

Bridges said she's gone into retail stores to apply in person instead of online, and she's even called back to check on the status of her applications. Yet her efforts have only yielded the corporate brush-off—or worse—no response at all.

"I feel like they're not giving me enough time or attention because I'm younger," she said.

And it may not be Bridges' imagination.

Dominique Boston, an admissions specialist at Blackhawk Technical College, said teens now face more competition than ever from adults who in a stuttering economy are snapping up jobs that just a few years ago were deemed kids' work.

"Jobs that were traditionally geared towards the restaurant business, the grocery business and retail, there is new adult competition there," said Boston.

With few full-time jobs remaining, Boston said adults also are finding part-time jobs more palatable.

"More and more adults are willing to do night and weekend work, those part-time shifts that were once most attractive or conducive to the high schooler's after-school schedule," Boston said. "Unfortunately, that means teens maybe aren't given the best advantages that they've had in the past."

Bridges and other local teens were at a youth job expo Saturday at Hedberg Public Library in Janesville. The event was hosted by the Rock County Job Center and several local employers, colleges and volunteer organizations.

Teens at the event had a universal question: In this job market, what's a kid jobseeker to do?

Amber Culver, a job service counselor at the Department of Workforce Development acknowledged there are fewer jobs for teens now than in past years.

Still, she said teens tend to underestimate their ability to network to find jobs.

"You forget people like your neighbor, the person who changes the oil in my car, the veterinarian receptionist or the checkout worker at the store. Students looking for work need to ask everyone they know."

Culver said teen jobseekers should consider volunteering with a local organization. She said volunteer work, even if it's unpaid, shows initiative and responsibility—two attributes employers seek.

"If they say to an employer that they've been volunteering for a year at the humane society and have never missed a day, that can mean as much as any skill or experience," said Culver. "That's an accomplishment for that person, but it's also qualities an employer knows they can count on."

D.J. Brekke, 16, of De Pere, said he's staying with his father in Janesville this summer, and is looking to get a summer job.

Brekke said he would like to work at a department store, but for a job in retail sales, he realizes he faces stiff competition from grown-ups.

"Employers want people with experience and good work ethics," Brekke said. "And let's face it, young people are known for being irresponsible and tend to quit."

Brekke said he'll take any paying gig he can find this summer. And he may be in luck. Some local job markets are nearly adult-proof.

For instance, Pioneer Hi-Bred, hires only youths for one of its summer jobs—corn pollinating. The company will need about 120 workers for local pollination projects this summer, said Janet Grman, an administrative specialist with Pioneer.

Pioneer prefers to hire teens for pollinating so that workers remain in a group of their peers, Grman said .

Like corn detassling, pollinating isn't a glamorous summer job. It's dirty, strenuous work. Plus, it's seasonal, and only lasts about three weeks.

Those conditions mean fewer applicants—an employment boon for teens who don't mind sweat and long hours of fieldwork, Grman said.

So how badly do the kids want to work?

"I guess I'd consider doing something like that," Bridges said. "If I had my nights free."


Volunteer with a local organization: The work might not pay, but it shows initiative, responsibility and helps build relationships.

Use your network: Ask everyone from neighbors to friends to relatives—whomever you bump into daily. They might know someone who knows of a job opportunity.

Start a resume early: Teens may be short on work experience, but life experience counts too. List your organizations, school and sports honors, volunteer work and even your interests.

Use your resources: Take advantage of free workshops that employers and employment agencies make available. Ask school resource counselors for jobseeker support materials.

Watch your social networking: Employers increasingly scour Facebook and other social sites for information about prospective employees. Think about what you post before you post it.

*Sources: Dominique Boston, admissions specialist, Blackhawk Technical College; Amber Culver, job service counselor, Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.

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