June 10, 2013

Summer Chill: Fewer Companies Hiring Students Hurts Firms Too

PHOTOs/Matt VOLPINI
Christina Volcy, who just completed her junior year at the University of Pennsylvania, recently began a summer job with the Worcester law firm Mirick O'Connell. It's her second summer with the firm.

A summer job is almost a rite of passage for high school and college students, but it's one that has become increasingly rare over the last decade, a trend felt by area businesses that once relished the summer help.

"It makes a lot of people work a lot harder," said Jo-An Gladstone, president and founder of Select Staffing Solutions, with offices in Framingham and Worcester.

Gladstone said that at one time, her company was peppered with requests to find high school and college students able to work summer jobs in a variety of industries, from professional services to manufacturing. Companies often needed students to fill in while employees took vacations, she said.

But in recent years, that demand has died down, according to Gladstone, and Select Staffing has stopped recruiting young workers for seasonal jobs "because we don't want to give people false hope."

Statistics on teen employment in Massachusetts and across the country seem to back up Gladstone's experience.

Drop In Teen Employment Preceded Great Recession

A decline in seasonal hiring may be symptomatic of the larger problem of dwindling teen employment over the last 13 years.

The Great Recession of 2008 and 2009 appears to have played a role in stifling employment among teens in particular, according to research by Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies. But the percentage of employed American teens appeared to have been sliding during the years that led up to the economic crisis.

The center found that 53 percent of teenagers were employed nationwide in 1999, and that percentage steadily declined, to 38 percent in 2003, and 33 percent in January 2009, before it dropped more precipitously to 29 percent by November 2009 as the United States began to emerge from the recession.

In Massachusetts, the problem is worse than in most states, according to a February 2013 report by the Massachusetts Youth Jobs Coalition, which found that, with a teen employment rate of 27 percent in 2012, the Bay State ranks 31st in the nation.

Lagging teen employment translates to a projected tough summer jobs market this year, as detailed in the Center for Labor Market Studies' report, "The Dismal State of the Nation's Teen Summer Job Market, 2008-2012, and the Employment Outlook for the Summer of 2013." The report's authors predict a teen employment rate of 27.4 percent this summer, a modest improvement from last summer's rate of 26.5 percent. That rate does appear to be creeping up slowly, after sinking to six- and seven-year lows of 25.7 percent in both 2010 and 2011.

But Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies and an author of the Northeastern report, said the upward trend is nothing to get too excited about.

"(Rates) are still below what they would have been 10 or 20 years ago," said Sum, who has advocated for state funding to support teen jobs growth in the Massachusetts Legislature to help rectify the problem.

Public Funding: Short-Term Solution

Public funding from the 2009 federal economic stimulus package to support summer jobs provided temporary relief in 2009 and 2010, said Jeffrey Turgeon, executive director of the Central Massachusetts Workforce Investment Board. But he said public funding isn't a long-term solution. Companies have to want to hire, and Turgeon said he doesn't see much appetite for it.

"On some level it's basically plateaued … in this negative realm for the past two or three years and I don't necessarily see it getting better or worse in the near future," Turgeon said, based on his monitoring of summer jobs posted on public jobs boards.

And businesses are missing out on the insight that is particular to young workers. For example, a student hired to work in a professional office for the summer might introduce an employer to cutting-edge social media that can improve the business's visibility and reach, Turgeon said. "Certainly, young people bring a lot to the table for employers."

'Fierce' Competition

On the other hand, young workers face competition from older applicants. In recent years, college graduates have taken jobs previously held by teens due to a lack of job prospects upon graduation, Turgeon said. But these days, retirees are also interested in the same sorts of part-time jobs, often because they just want to keep busy, he said, and employers tend to view those candidates as preferable to younger workers because they're seen as more reliable.

The economy hasn't necessarily changed the hiring practices of all companies, and Sum, the director at the Center for Labor Market Studies, said large firms have been able to maintain hiring at pre-recession levels.

At Mirick O'Connell, a law firm with offices in Worcester and Westborough, summer hiring has remained steady in recent years, according to Betsy Landry, director of human resources. The firm tends to hire college students and recent graduates who can provide much-needed administrative support.

Though the firm has been fortunate to maintain those positions, Landry said, the number of applicants is telling of the wider summer jobs market.

"Competition is very fierce for the summer positions," Landry said.

Jennie Lee Colosi, president of E.T.& L. Corp., a Stow construction firm, is hoping her company's summer hiring practices will return to normal next year, after a workload slowdown prompted E. T. & L. to abandon its usual practice of hiring two engineering students as paid summer interns this year. The company will miss the added expertise, Colosi said, since summer is always the busiest season for construction firms.

"They're actually helping us do some bidding, or they're helping us in the field on one of our projects," Colosi said, when asked about the usual tasks assigned to engineering interns.

Colosi noted that E. T. & L. has hired one summer intern outside the engineering discipline this year to assist with materials tracking.

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