Summer, for many teens, has traditionally meant picking up a summer job.

This summer, however, because of the still-sluggish economy and changing dynamics in the workforce, those jobs are hard to find.

In fact, employment opportunities for Maine teens, and those slightly older, have been slack for the last few years, hit hard by the Great Recession and its reverberations.

That’s leaving too many young Mainers without the skills and experience that fuel success later in life. And if nothing is done, that will have severe implications for Maine’s aging, stagnant workforce.

LAGGING BEHIND

The 2013 unemployment rate for Mainers age 16 to 19 was 21.1 percent, up sharply from the pre-recession rate of 14.1 percent.

That’s compared to an overall unemployment rate of 6.8 percent, and lower rates for age groups 35 to 44 (5.7 percent), 45 to 54 (5.3 percent) and 55 to 64 (3.8 percent).

Why? Not as many companies are hiring, and when they are, they are not hiring young people with little experience.

Also, older residents are staying in the workforce longer, taking up some of those jobs that typically would have been available for younger job-seekers.

“Jobs that were part time and minimum-wage were relegated to students,” Tom McNeil, a counselor at Winslow High School, told the Portland Press Herald. “Now you have older folks who are taking those jobs.”

Teen employment has been linked to higher future earnings and better future employment opportunities.

Teens also are losing out on the chance to build the kind of job-specific skills one can learn on a worksite, as well as the more general communication and employment skills – how to act, how to dress, how to work with co-workers – that come with any job.

WEAK MARKET

And the teen unemployment rates tell only part of the story.

The labor market for teens and young adults is dire, according to a study released earlier this year by the Brookings Institute that looked at the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas.

The study uses the employment rate, which includes all non-institutionalized people in an age group – unlike the unemployment rate, which excludes those who are not looking for a job or have given up looking for a job. It is considered a solid measure of how tough it is to find work.

The study found the employment rate dropped precipitously from 2000 to 2011 for teens 16 to 19 (44 percent to 24 percent), as well as for the 20-24 age group (72 percent to 60 percent).

Of course, many in those age groups are in school and may not be looking for work. But that was also true in 2000, and the study puts most of the blame for the poor numbers on the lack of job opportunities.

The picture is better for certain subsets: non-Hispanic whites, those from households with higher incomes and those with work experience or higher levels of education.

DISENGAGED YOUTH

That means the poor have been hit disproportionately hard. They will continue to bear the brunt in the future, as the lack of experience, education, skill-building opportunities and the chance to cultivate work contacts all compound the problem.

Often, they are the ones who become disengaged from the workforce, with predictable results.

“So-called ‘disconnected youth’ or ‘opportunity youth’ are missing key education and employment experiences and are at increased risk for a host of negative outcomes: long spells of unemployment, poverty, criminal behavior, substance abuse and incarceration,” the Brookings study says.

This is of particular concern in Maine, where 17,000 18- to 24-year-olds have not obtained a degree beyond high school and are not working or in school. That’s 15 percent of all young adults, the highest rate in New England.

That’s an easy group to cast aside. But real solutions – more internships and apprenticeships, improved career counseling, early exposure to higher education – are far more valuable.

These are the idle, young and poor who will strain Maine’s social safety net for years to come, and keep the state from expanding its workforce in the way it most certainly needs to.

Left unaddressed, it will be just one more weight on the economy of Maine.