With fewer summer jobs, teens must compete on skills, not availability

Chris Rocha is one in a million.

This summer, just over 1 million teens like Rocha are expected to work a job. As of Tuesday, Rocha’s earning $10 an hour as an IT pro managing the website for Junior Achievement of the Palm Beaches and Treasure Coast. It’s a project he actually started during spring break when he completely refurbished the site.

“I want to finish it up,” said Rocha, 15, a student at SouthTech Academy in Boynton Beach. “And take care of anything else they need me to do in the office.”

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Despite Rocha’s good fortune, it is likely there will be fewer jobs for youths ages 16 to 19 again this summer. Part of the reason is the upheaval in the service sector of the U.S. economy, including the implosion of major retailers like Sports Authority and Toys R Us.

The staffing firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas points out teens in this age group landed nearly 1.3 million jobs in the three-month summer period — May, June and July — of 2017. But that figure was a sharp 25 percent decline in the number of available summer jobs since 2006, while the percentage of American teens participating in a summer job has plummeted from 65 percent four decades ago to 40 percent last year.

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Historically, summer jobs have been a way for U.S. youths to earn spending money. And to get an introduction to the American workplace at a point in their lives when many teens are mulling colleges, majors and career aspirations.

Now, with entry-level service jobs in short supply, teens like Rocha need to network and stand out with their skills, not simply their availability once school’s out for the summer.

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Bob Cawood, Business Development Manager at Junior Achievement, said he met first met Rocha at a Junior Achievement event earlier this year. In that encounter, Rocha mentioned that he had already started his own company.

“I thought, yeah, ok,” Cawood said. “Then we spoke to his mom and she told us, ‘No, really, he does have his own company.’”

After speaking with Rocha again, Cawood said they invited him to the West Palm Beach office and gave him access to the website’s code. There, Rocha quickly showed his abilities by single-handedly redesigning Junior Achievement’s online site in one week. He added animation, scrolling script, different fonts and, in general, a completely new look.

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“He basically built our website,” Cawood said. “Our website was pretty outdated. It’s not anymore.”

Cawood said the change in summer job availability makes it critical for students to emphasize skills, and for employers to open their doors much earlier. That’s the goal, he said, of two of the organization’s key programs.

One is job shadowing, where teens spend a day in a company. The other one is a yearlong program in which high school students form companies and then pitch those businesses to a panel of judges.

Rocha, however, has already identified a career path. He wants to be in the role-playing video game industry, but not merely as a designer.

“I want to run my own company,” he said.

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