Lauren Parr, 18, thought that finding a summer job would be a piece of cake. That's before she was rejected by Caribou Coffee -- three times. And Ben and Jerry's, Feed My Starving Children, Office Max and Scheels, a sporting-goods store in Eden Prairie.

Last week Parr, a Minnetonka High School graduate heading to the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., in the fall, secured a day's work painting the deck of a house in Chanhassen for $10 an hour. Her boss? Parr's mom, Jeannette, who joked that if her daughter doesn't find real work soon, "she'll be washing my windows -- my list is long."

Hordes of teenagers and young adults are pounding the pavement in an increasingly desperate hunt for summer jobs. Parents, please resist rolling your eyes and pulling out your "just try harder" speech if they come home empty-handed. One recent survey found that 76 percent of hiring managers expected to fill their seasonal jobs by May -- if they even had seasonal jobs.

Joseph McLaughlin, a research associate with the Northeastern University Center for Labor Market Studies, says this is the toughest year on record for teens seeking summer work.

"We're at a 60-year low," he said, noting that an estimated 3 million U.S. youths want jobs they can't find.

Holy hamburgers!

Many factors make it so. Companies queasy about an uncertain economy are holding back on filling positions, or they're filling in with nontraditional workers, such as people 55 and older, whom they believe are more responsible. Immigrant groups, too, are happy to take less-appealing service jobs that were once a shoo-in for teens. It doesn't help that teens only want jobs for two or three months.

Steve Schumacher, director of STEP-UP, a summer employment program operated by Achieve! Minneapolis, remains bullish that his organization will still place 600 Minneapolis youths in jobs this summer, in everything from health care to financial services to custodial work.

"But, obviously, it's tough out there," he said. "Everything looked pretty good in January, but in the last few months due to the price of gas and food, a lot of companies aren't rehiring, or they're trying to cut back. In some cases, students are competing with adults for the same job."

Career seekers taking jobs

Competition also is coming from teens' slightly older peers, McLaughlin noted, as people 20 to 24 settle for entry-level jobs when they can't find positions in their chosen careers.

Nick Borger, 22, of St. Paul, just graduated from Miami University in Ohio and will attend law school at the University of St. Thomas in the fall. He started job hunting in March, mostly on Craigslist, hoping for a summer marketing or administrative position. Instead, he found himself turning down a job setting up trampolines at county fairs, then accepting a two-hour $60 gig dusting a man's shelves filled with figurines and plates.

"Part of it may have been that I was looking too big from the beginning," Borger said. "The fact is that, even though the economy is bad, people of my generation like to say, 'We're college-educated. We should get a phenomenal job.' I have a marketing degree from a top 20 business school and was an American Mock Trial Association All-American in 2007. I thought those qualities would make it so people would come after me. But the reality check is that it's not as much the case."

Now for the good news

Fewer jobs. More competition. And it's already late June. Why bother? Actually, there are several reasons to remain hopeful.

For starters, McLaughlin noted that Minnesota is a national leader in teen employment. Last year, Minnesota teens boasted the nation's fourth-highest employment rate from May through August, largely because of bold initiatives such as STEP-UP, as well as a high priority placed on internships and career counseling in high school.

Another factor? That great Midwestern work ethic. Parents, particularly in middle- and upper-middle-class segments, "see value in having their kids work during the summer," McLaughlin said. "Lower-income kids are most affected by [a weak economy], but in Minnesota all groups do better."

And while two-thirds of hiring managers surveyed by, an online source of hourly jobs, said they were likely to fill jobs by May, it's not clear whether they actually did, said CEO Shawn Boyer. In fact, many managers might have held back and are now ready to go full-steam ahead for the final eight or 10 weeks of the season.

In other words, teenagers, what are you waiting for?

"Get out there and start looking now, if you haven't already started," Boyer counseled.

And if you have connections, work 'em.

Cara Rowe, 19, of Minneapolis, is working for her second summer in a small financial company owned by a family friend, doing small projects such as scanning and filing.

"It's not particularly challenging," said Rowe, who heads back to Grinnell College in Iowa in the fall, "but the fact that the pay is good [$12 an hour] and the hours are flexible makes up for it."

Miles Swammi, 18, just graduated from Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis and heads to the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota in the fall. Last year, STEP-UP placed Swammi in a marketing position with Thrivent for 25 hours a week at $8 an hour. This summer, he's working for Mayor R.T. Rybak.

"I'm definitely lucky to be in this program," he said.

Even without connections, persistence does pay off. Brian Hedberg, 19, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, got rejected by the restaurant where he worked last summer but secured a job with College Pro Painters at $10 an hour.

"The pickier you are, the harder it is," he said.

And remember Nick Borger, who saw a long, dry summer ahead? Not more than 15 minutes after talking to a reporter about his dismal summer job prospects, he got a call from a local temp agency. He'll be working the rest of the summer in a full-time administrative job at $12 an hour.

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350