What's the Big Idea?

Where have all the summer jobs for teenagers gone?

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By Kate Julian
Sunday, June 6, 2010

Call it the case of the missing summer jobs.

According to Northeastern University economist Andrew Sum, only a third of American 16- to 19-year-olds had a job last summer, the lowest level on record and down from 52 percent a decade ago. The decline began long before the current economic crisis, so high unemployment is not the only culprit. But the question of who is to blame has launched your classic Washington think tank skirmish.

First up, Steven Camarota, a researcher at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors tighter restrictions on immigration. In a paper released last month, he points a finger at (yes) immigrants, who often fill the types of low-skill jobs that teenagers have traditionally held.

But in reviewing Camarota's paper, Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the liberal Economic Policy Institute, spotted what she considered a glaring omission. "He didn't mention rising summer school enrollment," she told me last week. "It's this massive trend that he just didn't talk about."

Shierholz put out a brief critiquing Camarota's argument: "CIS Analysis of Immigration's Impact on Youth Employment Omits Key Facts." She argued that increased summer school attendance more than accounted for the decline in teen employment.

After what a post on the EPI Web site describes as "friendly discussions," the dueling researchers reached a detente. Shierholz now reckons that summer school accounts for only around a third of the overall decline. Camarota, for his part, concedes that school enrollment might be playing some role. "It wouldn't be plausible if the whole story is immigration," he told me.

In other words, the mystery remains. Other suspects: older workers who aren't retiring as quickly as expected; increases, in some states, in the minimum wage; and that old standby, changing values.

One thing everyone agrees on? Summer jobs, if they can be found, don't pay anything like they used to. "When I was a teenager in the early '80s in New Jersey," Camarota said, "It was not uncommon for a hard job to pay $7 an hour, which would be about $15 an hour now. Now nobody, under any circumstances, pays a teenager $15 an hour."

Have a contender for the Big Idea? Let us know at outlook@washpost.com.


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