June 25, 2008 · Updated 6:48 PM
School's out, and summer jobs are keeping high school students busy for the season -- if they're lucky.
With unemployment rates reaching 7.7 percent in June, adult job seekers are making it a bit more difficult for teenagers looking for work this summer.
"The market's a little bit tight," said Jim Vleming, a Washington state market analyst from the Department of Labor and Industries. "People are more conservative in hiring."
With teens and adults both in the market for jobs, actually landing a job can be tough, especially on Whidbey Island. With more experienced job seekers on the hunt for a job, many are willing to take a trade down in pay and a part-time status to be employed.
But for Jeff O'Brien, innkeeper at The Inn at Langley, hiring teenagers was a natural choice. One of many businesses on South Whidbey whose business picks up in the summer, the seasonal help teens can provide is just what he needs.
On top of that, he said, teens tend to be best suited for the work he has.
"They haven't been in the industry long enough to develop bad habits," O'Brien said of his teenage workers. "They are great kids, I think I have the pick of the litter."
O'Brien said hiring teens isn't a big risk because the inn is prepared to train any new employee. Teenagers are eager to learn, and in O'Brien's estimation, makes some of the best trainees.
"Every department is covered with high school kids, and that's really fun," said O'Brien.
One of O'Brien's employee's, 17-year-old Francesca Grove, works in the inn's kitchen as a dishwasher and food preparation handler. A high school senior in September, she will continue working during the school year weekends and for special catering events.
"I needed a job," said Grove. "I needed money and they had an opening."
That money, which is most conveniently earned by teens during the summer when school is out, is the point to getting a summer job. It's not a lot, but it's not as little as some might think
In all states, the Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to pay teenage workers at least the federal minimum wage of $5.15. But the wages are usually a bit higher than that mark. L&I's Vleming said the average student employee -- typically hired into in retail or food service trades -- earn between the federal minimum and $8.50 an hour in Washington.
Still, hiring teens because they come cheap is not always an employer's major hiring motivation. Suzette Hart, director of South Whidbey Parks & Recreation District, said the high school students she hires for summer work are a positive influence on children enrolled in day camps and other district programs.
"They're always wonderful," she said. "They have a ton of energy and they're positive role models, which is important for (the children) to have."
Hart said many of the stigmas attached to hiring young employees was simply untrue. Most of her bad hiring experiences have come from working with older workers. Teens are more reliable than some employers may think.
"They're excited to work and they show up on time," she said.
During the summer Hart employs teens as summer camp leaders, tennis instructors and umpires for youth baseball tournaments. Working for Hart at South Whidbey High School's tennis courts this month, 18-year-old Michael Berry played a few rounds of "tennis baseball" with his young students. This is his perfect summer job.
"I love tennis and I love working with kids," said Berry.
While being in charge of seven hot, tired and thirsty kids at a time could drive many to find a quieter job, Berry said "yes" to every child who asked him to be on their team, and to a bathroom request from one 7-year-old who set off a chain reaction of "I have to go potty" from all the students.
With the money he earns teaching two tennis camp sessions, Berry will travel to Europe. What is left will go to his college fund when he leaves for school this fall.
A few miles south of the tennis courts, one business where customers expect to see teens, Clinton Foodmart, does not disappoint. Store manager Clay Anderson said he usually has a few teens on staff year round.
"For the most part it has been pretty good," he said.
Careful with his hiring decisions, Anderson said he usually tries to have some knowledge of a teen's family before he hires a new employee, and from that can usually determine the quality of a worker he is hiring.
Anderson said dealing with sports schedules and extra-curricular activities while the teenagers are in school can be tough, but he said he tries to be accommodating so students can get their full high school experience.
As 15-year-old Nathan Driscoll stocked dairy shelves at Clinton Foodmart this month with fresh milk containers, he said many of his friends work at grocery stores.
"I needed money, so I figured I might as well start early," Driscoll said.
According to Lisa Pemberton, a spokeswoman in Washington's Department of Labor and Industry office, early starts like Driscoll's come with certain protections. She said Washington requires a minor work permit for businesses, parent and school permission during the school year and specific hour requirements for 14- and 15-year-old and 16- and 17-year-old age groups.