As a teen in the 1990s, I spent an hour or two applying for after-school jobs and had an offer in a week. Marquetta Cooper wishes it was that easy. "I've been trying to find a job for a long time now," said the 18-year-old from Coon Rapids. She's been looking for a retail position for more than a year, hoping that she finds something by summer so she can pay for school supplies this fall.

Unfortunately for Cooper and many teens like her, the employment outlook for 16- to 19-year-olds is terrible and has been since the economic downturn hit.

Last year, teens experienced the worst job market since 1949, with an unemployment rate of 25 percent nationwide and a 21 percent rate in Minnesota. Because of overall high unemployment, inexperienced teens found themselves jockeying with recent college grads and unemployed adults for entry-level gigs frying burgers and folding clothes.

Summer 2011 is shaping up to be more of the same. "These statistics are really much more grim than they've ever been," said Oriane Casale, of Minnesota's Department of Employment and Economic Development. "Many youth are just not going to find a full-time or even a steady part-time job this summer."

The data show teens will have better luck with seasonal employers such as landscaping companies and amusement parks, or in the growing health care sector than they will in retail, manufacturing and construction.

Yes, it's looking bleak out there. But that doesn't mean you can't earn money this summer. Start your job search while snow is still on the ground. "Get there before 20 other people get there," said Jerry Vitzthum, director of the Anoka County Job Training Center.

Network with your friends and family, suggests Mark Griffin, a business teacher at Eden Prairie High School. Research the business you're hoping to work for. When you shake someone's hand, look that person in the eye. Also, dress for success. "That doesn't mean you show up for a job at Subway in a three-piece suit, but dress appropriately. Leave the holey jeans at home," he said.

If your pavement-pounding doesn't pan out, create your own summer job mowing lawns, babysitting or organizing garage sales. There are plenty of resources out there to help you, from the young entrepreneur's page at to summer activities such as Junior Entrepreneurs of Minnesota, a program hosted by the University of Minnesota.

See if you qualify for a youth job program, typically reserved for teens with special needs or who come from low-income families. But it's tough to get into these programs, too. Take Tree Trust, a youth employment corps for teens living in Dakota, Washington and suburban Hennepin counties. The program hired 1,200 youths -- including Cooper -- in 2009, when stimulus funding helped foot the bill. This year, Tree Trust's Felecia Schmidt expects at least 2,500 teens to apply for 550 positions. "It's awful. I actually hate saying those numbers out loud," she said. Similar scenarios are playing out statewide, leaving too many teens aimless all summer. And that's before proposed cuts to state funding as legislators attempt to balance the budget.

If the money isn't a must-have, spend time developing your job search skills. Vitzthum encourages teens to utilize job training centers, taking classes to practice interviewing and to build a solid résumé. Tammy Dickinson, director of the Step-Up Summer Jobs Program in Minneapolis, a paid internship program that received more than 3,500 applications this year, tells job-seekers to keep résumés to one page, to check for misspellings and to run the finished product by an adult who can look for major omissions.

Finally, consider spending the summer volunteering or working an unpaid internship. Both look great on college applications. Long term, a college degree will improve your employment prospects and increase your earnings potential. "More and more, education is what matters in the labor force," Casale said.

Spending time applying for college scholarships found on sites such as and can ease the financial setback of working for free.

Kara McGuire • 612-673-7293 or Follow her on Twitter: @kablog