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Teens face job search hurdles as older workers fill entry-level spots

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Keifer W. Thomas, 18, said lots of his teenage friends are having a tough time finding a job in Watertown.

“They’re trying but can’t find anything,” said the 2013 Watertown High School graduate, who works at Little Caesars Pizza on State Street. “I would say that I have about 50 friends on Facebook right now that are looking for jobs, but they’re not really looking hard enough. Some of them don’t want to start working at a fast-food restaurant.”

Older people with work experience are increasingly taking jobs in the service industry, making it challenging for teens to find entry-level jobs at fast-food restaurants and grocery stores, said Cheryl A. Mayforth, executive director of the Workplace employment agency, 1000 Coffeen St. Job prospects for teens also have been diminished by high unemployment in the north country, she said. In December, Jefferson County posted the second highest jobless rate in the state, tying with Hamilton County at 9.1 percent. Lewis County was the third highest at 8.9 percent.

“It’s a trend locally — older workers are taking the place of the young,” Mrs. Mayforth said. “All you have to do is go through a drive-thru restaurant and you’ll see a different face than you’re used to. There are not a lot of younger people that have those jobs here.”

The local trend of teen unemployment mirrors the national one. Only about one of three 16- to 19-year-olds worked or sought a job in January, according to U.S. Department of Labor data.

After the recession in 2010, older unemployed people who lost jobs began gravitating toward entry-level jobs normally claimed by teens, Mrs. Mayforth said. Staff at the Workplace encourages long-term unemployed people to enter the workforce by taking so-called “stopgap” jobs, she said.

During the recession “we started to see more old people behind counters at restaurants,” she said. “We’ve promoted the message of taking a ‘stopgap’ job, which is any job that puts you back into the workforce so that an employer sees you’re working. Unemployment is still high here, and older people are willing to take jobs in the service industry.”

Because of the high unemployment rate, service-related businesses have the luxury of being more selective when they hire entry-level employees, Mrs. Mayforth said. In some cases, that could mean older workers with more experience who are able to work longer hours have an advantage over teens in high school. Employers have the luxury of making hiring decisions after sorting through a thick stack of resumes.

It also has become more socially acceptable for college-bound teenagers to avoid working altogether during their high school years, Mrs. Mayforth said. Teens are focused on getting good grades and participating in extracurricular activities, which doesn’t leave time for a part-time job.

“They are pressured by their parents to take part in activities, and people see that as a way to pay for college these days,” she said.

Even so, teens who skip work during their high school years may be at a disadvantage when they eventually enter the workforce because they lack valuable soft skills gained through work experience. Arriving at work on time, for example, and basic customer service skills are among the skills teens who take entry-level jobs learn.

“Kids who do work have a higher earning potential in their twenties, and that’s because they have those soft skills,” Mrs. Mayforth said.

Shanli E.J. Weir, a senior at Watertown High School, has managed to squeeze in a part-time job at Burger King on State Street by working 12 hours a week. She previously worked at a Burger King in Pulaski before her family moved to Watertown this fall. That experience helped her get the Watertown job.

Miss Weir contended jobs are available for teens who are willing to hunt for them, but they need to follow up with employers to distinguish themselves.

“A lot of places are hiring right now, but you can’t just turn in an application and expect to get a job,” she said.

About seven teens work at the Burger King eatery, said manager Mark W. Merle, a 27-year-old who has worked at the restaurant for six years.

“We hire teens here because some of them don’t go to college, and they will be the next managers,” he said.

Tops Friendly Markets at Watertown Shopping Plaza on Washington Street employs five teens, manager Wayne Morris said. Its location — directly across from Watertown High School — has made it a popular venue for teens seeking part-time work.

Brandon L. Hulbert, 17, has worked at the grocery store for about a year and a half. He also has worked at Burrville Cider Mill on County Route 156 for the past three fall seasons.

“I don’t think it’s difficult to get a job, as long as you’re willing to work hard and put the effort forth,” he said.

David L. Herman, 18, is working there part-time while attending classes at Jefferson Community College, where he is studying math and science. Mr. Herman, who has worked at Tops for eight months, was hired after graduating from General Brown High School, Dexter, last year.

“This was the first place I applied for,” he said. “I think the number of younger and older employees who work here is about equal.”

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