Competition is high as unemployed adults look for work in low-paying student mainstays like hospitality and retail.
Valleyfair marketing director Jan Guthridge looks out over the park's new wave pool now under construction. About 1,200 people showed up for a recent job fair there, twice as many as normal and the largest group ever. Valleyfair will hire about 1,600 for its season.
When the housing market crashed, carpenter Jim Schweich, 42, went from his best year -- when he finally hit $30 an hour -- to his worst: no job, no unemployment benefits, living with a friend.
Schweich was in line at Valleyfair's job fair last weekend, waiting with hundreds of mostly teenagers and a sprinkling of adults hoping to land a summer job. Most jobs at the park pay $7.25 to $7.75 an hour.
High school senior Alex Worm, 18, stood outside the Shakopee amusement park's Stadium Pizza & Grill building-turned-hiring hall, leaning against the wall as he filled out a seasonal employment application. The pressure is on -- he needs to make $7,000 this summer so he can go to Rochester Community and Technical College this fall.
With jobs already tight and many places that normally hire teens already struggling, competition for summer jobs is running higher than ever. Employers are seeing record numbers of applicants, and more adults are seeking jobs often seen as mainstays for high school and college students: hospitality and retail work. Making matters worse, employers say workers from previous seasons are coming back to lock in their jobs because there aren't any other options.
"It's hard enough when you have to compete against only teenagers, and now throwing in the adults is making it even harder," said Worm, who lives in Jordan and hopes to be a ride operator this summer. If he doesn't get the job, he plans to go to Canterbury Park's job fair on Thursday.
Sarah Davis, a manager at Sunnyside Gardens in south Minneapolis, has seen a record number of applicants this year -- young and older. "A lot are overqualified, people from the professional fields who are looking for anything," she said.
The outlook already was bleak last summer, when the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston reported that the national teen employment rate for June and July was 32.8 percent, the lowest in 60 years. This summer could be even more grim.
"Since the end of last summer, the labor market has weakened substantially, and the employment rates for teens early this year are very low," said Joseph McLaughlin, a research associate with the center. "So we think that this summer will be worse than last summer."
McLaughlin said there's a factor that makes it even tougher for teens: people in their early 20s who can't find work in their chosen careers going back to their teenage jobs.
The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) does not have employment statistics for teens broken out by month. But it reports that the labor force participation rate for 16-to-19-year-olds, meaning those working or looking for work, has dropped steadily from 71 percent in 1981 to 54 percent in 2008.
"We were already in a recession last summer. The unemployment rate was already beginning to rise. Certain industries were already beginning to be affected, like retail. We sort of covered some of the territory that we'll be covering again this year," said Oriane Casale, assistant director of labor market information with the department. "The problem this year is that it's even worse. Not only have things not improved, but they've gotten progressively worse."
Its outlook for this summer will come out in May.
A recent survey by SnagAJob.com, a website for hourly jobs based in Richmond, Va., found that 73 percent of hiring managers expect more applications this summer and that 29 percent of them say youth's greatest competition will be workers who recently entered the workforce because of economic pressures.
The tightness of the summer job market was evident at two job fairs last weekend, one at Breezy Point Resort near Brainerd, Minn., the other at Valleyfair.
About 1,200 people -- twice as many as normal and the largest group ever -- showed up at Valleyfair, which hires about 1,600 for its season.
Valleyfair marketing director Jan Guthridge said there was an increase in applicants in the 25-to-50 age group. He noted that there is a silver lining to the abundance of applicants: "We can afford to be pretty picky about who we hire."
David Spizzo of Breezy Point agreed. About 260 people were at the resort's job fair; a normal year has about 100. He noted that some of the middle-age people who came were looking for management-level jobs. "In finding out that they were not available, they'd say, 'Oh, maybe I guess I would like to serve. I haven't done that since I was in college, and I still think I can do that.'''
Many employers said last summer's workers are coming back for their jobs, afraid to let go of a secure job.
"This year, if a supervisor had a group of 10 and usually hired four or five new employees and the rest rehires, we're seeing that maybe nine or 10 of those are actually rehires from previous seasons," said Gregg Lindbergh, a senior human resources generalist for the Three Rivers Park District. "I think it's the natural move for a lot of those staff to come back rather than brave the market."
Doug Spelbrink, human resources director for Bachman's, said it's hiring just a few less than 500 people this season. More than half are rehires, he said.
"Where are you going to go? Your best bet is to go where you worked last year. I think that's why people are getting so many rehires," he said. "It's just [that] your options are low."
Some relief available
Terry Zurn of Workforce Solutions of Ramsey County, which helps youth, adults and laid-off workers find jobs or complete their education, has advice for young people seeking work: Look for public resources through cities, counties and schools; flood the market, and network.
Federal and state funding is available through Minnesota's state-run workforce centers for at-risk youth.
Kirsten Morell, DEED communications director, said $15 million in one-time stimulus funding is available for summer youth employment. Other available funding: $8.5 million through the federal Workforce Investment Act for year-round, youth employment. And the Minnesota Youth Program, funded by the state, provides $3.5 million each year for at-risk youth.
Young people who would like to see if they qualify should go to their local workforce center and ask to speak to a youth counselor.
'I'll do it'
Schweich, the out-of-work carpenter who was at Valleyfair's job fair, said he lost his job and his house when the new housing market screeched to a halt. He was hoping to find a maintenance job at the park mending fences or doing upkeep, saying he wouldn't be comfortable working directly with the public.
"I'm sure they might say I am overqualified because I have been doing this so long," he said about his trade. "But I'll do it. The money may not be as good as I was used to. But I'll do it."
Suzanne Ziegler • 612-673-1707