Summer of our discontent

Adults take traditional teen jobs, leaving youth unemployed

Sarah Simmons

When Erin Swiatek began looking for a job last summer, she scoured her neighborhood for employment, but found even the fast food restaurants in the area around her home weren’t hiring.

“[I applied] anywhere I could,” says Swiatek, an 18-year-old Erie High School graduate. “There was [sic] a lot of fast food restaurants that were near my house: Dominos, Pizza Hut, but no takers. Even at Target, they said they wouldn’t hire me or someone else had already taken [the position].”

Swiatek says even at these locations, many of the employees were older and she felt her age might have been a deterrent for the employers.

“I started to give up because they were only taking adults, and I was like, ‘Who would ever hire me? I’m just a kid,’” she says.

Swiatek’s experience is a common one for many youth aged 16 to 21 in Boulder County and across the nation: During the past three years, they are increasingly finding that jobs historically available for them, such as hospitality, food services and retail, are being taken by adults. Some are even calling this summer the most difficult yet in terms of youth employment opportunities.

They are gradually becoming the last hired and first fired in these areas as adults scramble to find employment in the wake of the recession.

The fact that employers are not hiring youth is a trend with real consequences. Fewer summer jobs for youth mean less exposure to work environments and ultimately less time to build the skills and experiences needed for career track employment.


Programs such as Workforce Boulder County, the Junior Rangers and Boulder County Youth Corps are working to counteract this trend by providing youth with workshops focusing on interviewing and job skills, and even employment opportunities.

The Junior Rangers and Boulder County Youth Corps are organizations that exclusively hire youth for jobs like building trails, landscaping, forestry work and historic restoration.

Hannah Wolfe, a 17-year-old recent graduate of Peak to Peak charter school in Lafayette, says she first became employed with Boulder County Youth Corps when she was 14. Wolfe is doing forestry work at Heil Valley Ranch Open Space this summer.

“The young age they were hiring at was beneficial,” Wolfe says. “No one else really had a job, and I was the only one getting paychecks and not having fun all summer, it seemed like, but it’s a great job, and it was great just to be able to have somewhere to go everyday and have something to do.”

Workforce Boulder County (WFBC) has three employment programs, two of which focus on youth: the federally funded Workforce Employment Act and the Governor’s Summer Job Hunt Program. Each year, the Governor’s Summer Job Hunt Program holds two job fairs in Boulder County, one in Boulder and one in Longmont, and encourages employers around the area to come and accept applications from youth.

Despite these efforts, leaders of these organizations realize that youth face serious challenges while looking for employment in Boulder County.

Claire Callahan, who runs the Governor’s Summer Job Hunt Program, says that in the past, WFBC has had success with hosting the job fairs. This year however, very few employers showed up to the fair in March.

“Typically restaurants would show up,” Callahan says. “In previous years we’ve had places as far as Water World come out here to recruit, and in recent years they just don’t bother because they’re so inundated with young people just from their own local areas. Sonic was somebody that was pretty much a go-to count on, and they didn’t come this year.”

One consistent attendee is Boulder’s Growing Gardens, Callahan says.

Growing Gardens’ youth program %uFFFDCultiva! employs about 50 teens between 11 and 19 years old to tend to their two-acre organic garden, harvest the produce for the Boulder Farmer’s Market and run the booth at the market.

“I feel like there’s a shortage of youth employers,” says Ellie Goldberg, the %uFFFDCultiva! coordinator. “[Working] helps them become more independent and helps prepare them for future jobs in the community and gives them just an opportunity to meet their potential.”

Eric Norton, an 18-year-old intern helping to run the %uFFFDCultiva! and Growing Gardens booth at the Farmer’s Market, says he would never have found the job if it had not been for WFBC’s job fair. Working at %uFFFDCultiva! has been his first and only job.

“I guess Boulder is notorious for not being youth friendly, and I guess a lot of people keep searching around and have no luck,” Norton says.

Working alongside Norton at the farmer’s market is Josue Sales, a 17-year-old senior at Boulder High School and third-year employee at %uFFFDCultiva!. Sales says he applied to Youth Corps and was not accepted, but managed to get a position at Growing Gardens because of WFBC, and he’s noticed that not many other youth are having such luck.

“None of my friends can really get jobs,” Sales says. “I’m usually the one saying, ‘Hey, you need to get a job.’” Elsa Gallegos, a WFBC employment advisor, says it’s crucial that more employers come to the job fairs and make an effort to hire more youth. Otherwise, the result of an entire demographic being without work experience could have a negative snowball effect for both their individual economic futures and their preparedness to contribute to the workforce as adults.

Gallegos says the best advice she gives for youth struggling to find employment is to show experience through babysitting or lawn mowing opportunities in their neighborhood to build a resume and references for an entry-level job.

“Getting as much experience that they can get now either through summer work or, if they’re in college through work study, is vital because employers on the other hand don’t hire unless they have some experience,” Gallegos says.


Few organizations exclusively hire teens, and WFBC Director Tom Miller says overall the last three to four years have been especially challenging, and the statistical information proves it.

While the nation’s unemployment rate currently stands at 9.2 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Miller says the youth unemployment rate is usually double, if not more, and may currently stand around an estimated 25.3 percent in Colorado — slightly higher than the nationwide average of 24.5 percent.

The overall unemployment situation may be pushing older people into finding any means of employment, often below their skill levels, in an effort to provide for their families, and Miller says employers are more inclined to offer jobs for these older applicants.

“I think employers hire people who are more mature and have been in the workforce longer because they know what’s expected of them from their employers,” Miller says. “They’re more reliable, and there’s less training. They’re more consistent. Many youth only want summer jobs; [employers] may want people longer than summer.”

Jane Ganz, a WFBC supervisor who works with the youth program team, says youth often face these preexisting stereotypes of immaturity and unreliability, both of which are often unfounded but can seriously discourage employers from hiring youth.

“What we’ve always heard from employers that have employed youth during the summer is they have so much enthusiasm, so much energy, and they’re good workers,” Ganz says. “It’s kind of the antithesis of what most people think about youth.”

Another stereotype that is even harder for youth to overcome is the idea that the money they earn from summer employment is purely recreational, often paying for tickets to movies with friends or for trips to the mall, Ganz says.

In reality, some youth are in need of income to help their families with everyday expenses. In Swiatek’s case, she says she initially looked for work to help her parents out, but at their insistence, she saved the money to help pay for the community college classes she now attends.

“Many of our youth who need to work in the summer need it to buy school clothes for the upcoming school year,” Ganz says. “Perhaps in the last couple years it’s been more giving it to their parents to help with monthly bills that come in. I don’t see a lot of youth working in the summer just for them to have money. It’s for a purpose.”


One incentive for employers to hire youth is a Colorado Revised Statute that was put into effect on July 1, 1977. The statute allows unemanicpated minors, or a youth living at home with a parent or guardian who is under 18, to be hired at 15 percent less than the minimum wage. With the current minimum wage of $7.36 an hour in Colorado, this statute could mean a youth would earn $6.25 an hour.

“Now we don’t know that too many employers take advantage of that, and we would suggest that if an employer thinks that perhaps a salary below the $7.36 minimum wage might make hiring a young person possible, that they should contact our department of labor and learn more about that particular provision in state law,” says Bill Theonnes, a spokesperson for the state labor department. “It’s not a great reduction, but its still almost a dollar less than what they would be paying per hour.”

Theonnes says by teaching youth how to market themselves in such difficult times organizations like those in Boulder County are pointing them in the right direction.

“In the worst of times, a program like the Governor’s Summer Job Hunt is even more important because teens have largely been disenfranchised from the workplace even in the best of times, and in the worst of times that’s just exacerbated,” he says.

The skills youth are given won’t be worth the effort however, if employers aren’t willing to hire them, says Julie Berge, the statewide Governor’s Summer Job Hunt coordinator.

“It’s going to take time before the youth are back in the workforce as a constant like they were five years ago,” Berge says. “We’ve got to communicate to the employers that this is another generation coming up, coming through, being ready to get into the workforce.”