Sabrina Jandreau thought she had a pretty good shot at getting a position as a counselor at a day camp, the summer job she had applied for this spring.
The 16-year-old Winslow High School sophomore thinks she’s good with kids, is active playing field hockey and lacrosse and running indoor track, and pulls down good grades. She’s an experienced baby sitter. And she provided plenty of names of references.
So it was a bit of a shock when she was told she didn’t have the right qualifications and someone else was going to be leading the kids in camp games and activities.
Jandreau took the rejection in stride, but said she’s given up the search for a paying job for now. Instead, she plans to volunteer a lot over the next few months to beef up her resume for a paying job next summer.
“It’s waiting and maturing and, when I get a year older, people will possibly take me more seriously,” she said.
Jandreau is not alone in finding that nailing down that first job is tough, and it seems tougher than ever these days. The unemployment rate for Mainers 16 to 19 dipped last year, but it was still 21.1 percent, up sharply from the 14.1 percent rate in 2008, just before the Great Recession. And young Mainers are better off than their peers nationally, where late-teen unemployment rates were nearly 19 percent in 2008 and 22.9 percent last year.
Unemployment among younger workers is a perennial problem. Sixteen- and 17-year-old job-seekers often have no experience, so potential employers aren’t sure if they will show up on time, put the cellphone aside and dress appropriately.
But there’s more at play these days, said Glenn Mills, the Maine Department of Labor’s senior economist.
“Kids are competing with older people who have much more experience,” Mills said, noting that the competition isn’t restricted to those just a few years older.
Participation in the labor force – which means working or actively looking for a job – has declined among 16- to 19-year-old Mainers, from 56.5 percent in 2000 to 50.5 percent last year. At the same time, more older workers are staying on the job or getting back into the workforce: Labor force participation rates among 55- to 64-year-olds rose from 61.6 percent in 2000 to 69.1 percent last year. And among an even older group, those 65 and older, labor force participation jumped from 13.9 percent in 2000 to 20.8 percent last year.
Mills said it’s clear that not all of those older workers are competing directly with teenagers for jobs, but some surely are looking to pick up some extra cash with jobs at fast-food restaurants or a few hours a week behind a store register.
“Right now, there’s a higher share of young seniors working,” Mills said. In Maine’s aging population, swings of even a few percentage points in those older age groups can have a big impact on the size of the labor force and the amount of competition for jobs.
Tom McNeil, Jandreau’s counselor at Winslow High, said older, near-retirement-age workers are just one factor making a young worker’s job search harder.
One is a slow recovery that not only cut into the number of jobs available, but also makes employers reluctant to hire at the first sign of an upturn in business.
Productivity improvements have reduced the number of workers needed, McNeil said. For instance, some teens in Winslow used to work for local farms, helping with the haying, but equipment has eliminated the need, he said.
And full-time workers who have lost their jobs try to cobble together part-time work to make ends meet.
“Jobs that were part-time and minimum-wage were relegated to students. Now you have older folks who are taking those jobs,” McNeil said.
Even the military, he said, isn’t looking for as many new recruits and is getting pickier about whom it will take in an era when the military is expected to downsize.
“The military is recruiting college-ready kids,” he said, with strong math skills and spotless records. “It used to be, if there were small brushes with the law, they’d say, ‘Well, we’ll work through it.’ Now, they don’t.”
The main way that local teens get a job is through connections, McNeil said, such as a parent who works in town and hears about another employer looking for a part-time worker. But for those without such contacts, he said, many jobs that come open are filled before there’s a need to run an ad or put a sign in the window.
“It’s much more difficult,” he said. “If you’re in a family that’s not connected, it’s really tough.”
Charles Colgan, a professor of public policy and management at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service, worries that teens who face barriers to finding jobs will be frustrated and leave – exacerbating the economic constraints caused by an old population and lack of in-migration.
“We’re so far behind other places in our recovery that, at least for the next several years, our lagging employment growth means it’s much easier to find a job out-of-state than in-state,” he said. “Over time, because labor becomes scarce due to demographics, the price of labor will go up and, as it goes up, Maine companies will be less competitive.”
One bright spot for teens is, as they get older – and particularly if they go to college – the employment picture is getting a little brighter.
Unemployment among Maine 20- to 24-year-olds last year dipped to 9.1 percent. That’s above the overall rate of 6.8 percent for last year, but below the 2008 jobless rate of 11.0 percent for the 20- to 24-year-old group.
Patricia Counihan, director of the Career Center at the University of Maine, said hiring plunged five or six years ago, but “it seems like it is coming back slowly but surely.”
She said the university doesn’t compile overall job placement figures until about six months after a class graduates, but she knows that IBM this year hired a handful of UMaine graduates, Enterprise Rent-A-Car signed up nine and a substantial number of other graduates said they had offers or interest from potential employers.
She said that in 2009, only about 60 companies signed up to recruit workers on campus. This year it was back up to the normal level of around 100.
For teens like Jandreau, finding a job after college is many years off, and she isn’t concerned about economic or demographic trends. She wasn’t even looking for a summer job primarily for the money she could earn, although there aren’t many 16-year-olds who wouldn’t appreciate a little more spending money.
“I want a job to make me more prepared for college, because that’s like a work environment,” she said. “And then, once I get out of college, I’ll understand what it’s like to have a boss or a co-worker.”