Competition Fierce for Summer Jobs

By Beacon Staff

COLUMBIA FALLS – Chelsey Wilson recently went to a local motel to apply for a job as front desk clerk and found herself sitting in a room with 40 other applicants. At least five of them were schoolteachers looking for summer work.

“They were teachers I know from elementary school,” Wilson, 20, said. “It was kind of interesting.”

Around the country, seasonal jobs traditionally occupied by high schoolers or college students on summer break are now fielding piles of applications, many from folks with extensive work experience. Some are laid-off workers and others, like the teachers, just need supplemental income in light of the recession. More people are willing to take lower-paying jobs than ever before.

According to researchers at Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies, the U.S. employment rate for 16-19 year-olds reached an all-time low toward the beginning of the national recession and has steadily declined since, breaking records each year.

By November of 2009, only 26.2 percent of 16-19 year-olds nationwide were employed, compared to 45.2 percent in 2000. The decline in employment for 20-24 year-olds has been less severe, but significant.

While it’s possible more young people are choosing volunteer work to build up their resumes, research indicates that the majority of unemployed youths are actively seeking paid work.

Barb Mansfield, a counselor at Whitefish High School, said students are having greater difficulty finding employment than at any other time in her 13 years. Juniors and seniors are often looking to save up for college, she said, while younger students want some spending money and independence. Or, more specifically, the freshmen and sophomores want money to drive.

“They want money for a car, money for gasoline and driving,” Mansfield said.

But beyond cars and spending money, saving up for college is a legitimate and serious concern for many of these students. On top of that, job experience gained as a teenager can be valuable for future employment.

Kids are traveling all around Flathead Valley in search of jobs, Mansfield said, whereas in the past they rarely had to leave city limits. Mansfield has heard students in Whitefish speak hopefully about potential jobs at the soon-to-open Walmart Supercenter in Kalispell.

“They’re really struggling to find a job and they’re venturing from town to town, going to Kalispell for interviews,” Mansfield said. “We don’t usually see kids actually leave their hometown to see if they can find a job.”

The problem for high schoolers is twofold. First, there aren’t a lot of jobs. Second, the available positions are highly competitive, which is tough for teenagers without much work experience. More 20- to 30-year-olds are applying for jobs such as fast food service and grocery store cashiers, Mansfield said.

And kids who want to pad their bank accounts during the summer with full-time jobs are increasingly having to settle for part-time jobs, if anything at all. In some cases, struggling family businesses may no longer be a viable option anymore either.

“If there are jobs out there, they’re competing against college students and older people,” Mansfield said. “They say, ‘All those old people, what are they doing taking my job?’”

Josh Gibbs waits for patrons to make the climb to the Geronimo slide at Big Sky Waterpark in Columbia Falls. Gibbs, a Kalispell resident, said he is working at the water park during the summer between semesters of college at Montana State University-Northern in Havre.

Wilson, meanwhile, has managed to finagle three different jobs, partly due to good fortune and largely due to her ambitious nature. Wilson, who will be a senior at Montana State University in Bozeman in the fall, said she called far in advance inquiring about employment. She knew it would be tough to find work coming home for summer break.

The good fortune in Wilson’s employment is that she seemed to call the right employers and she already had job connections. She has worked at both Grouse Mountain Lodge in Whitefish and Big Sky Waterpark in Columbia Falls in the past. Her third job is bartending at the Blue Moon.

“All my friends back from college still haven’t found any jobs,” Wilson said last week.

When she was in high school, Wilson said she and her friends could turn down jobs without worry, anticipating a better one. But today, even for low-paying seasonal work, she believes a college education or second language skills could be the deciding factor in a job application.

“Now you can’t wait around for a quote ‘better’ job,” Wilson said. “Before, I feel like you could choose what you wanted. (Employers) were begging for employees.”

If Wilson hadn’t previously worked as a lifeguard at Big Sky Waterpark, she likely wouldn’t have gotten the job. The waterslide park, a popular option for student seasonal employment, didn’t hire any new employees this season, except for a few that had been promised jobs last summer, said assistant manager Mike Dyon.

All of the other 50 or so employees at the amusement center are returnees, like Wilson. The more than 100 hopeful applicants had to be turned down, Dyon said, leaving a long waiting list. Most of the jobs pay minimum wage or a little better.

And the current employees aren’t likely to give up their positions either. That’s in direct contrast to years past, when kids would often leave after their first paycheck because they had found a better-paying summer job, Dyon said.

“There was awhile I hired everyone who walked in the door,” Dyon said. “This year I have 100 to 120 applications and we’re not even doing any interviews.”

Nationwide, cash-strapped local and state governments are cutting jobs, and in many cases they go after departments such as parks and recreation. In Kalispell, the parks and recreation department is a major seasonal employer. These days, the department can’t provide even close to enough jobs to satisfy the stacks of applications.

Chad Fincher, parks superintendent, said the department has about 100 summer workers, including 70 at Woodland Park’s pool. Not only is he seeing a lot more interest in the seasonal jobs, more people are looking for full-time gigs as well.

A parks caretaker position garnered 25 to 30 applicants a year-and-a-half ago, but recently it received more than 110 applicants, Fincher said.

“We’ve seen a huge change in the applications,” Fincher said. “You’re getting various people with trade skills applying for these positions. They want to hopefully break into a city or county government job to stabilize themselves.”

He added: “It’s hard out there. We get calls daily asking, ‘Do you have anything available?’”

Similar to Big Sky Waterpark, the Kalispell parks and recreation department uses returning employees as much as possible to avoid constant retraining. But those employees come in waves and, with a batch ready to graduate from college, Fincher is expecting the floodgates to open for new job applicants starting next year.

“We’re going to see a different landscape of workers for these positions,” he said.

Laura Gardner at the Flathead Job Service said there are bright spots in the labor market, despite double-digit unemployment rates throughout Northwest Montana. For one, employers are posting more jobs.

“We have 171 job postings today,” Gardner said on June 1, “which is the highest we’ve seen in two years. It’s exciting to see that there are a few more things opening up.”

But as more work opens up, it doesn’t necessarily mean the road will get any easier for young job seekers. They’ll still be competing with a hungry – and often experienced – labor force.

“They’re fighting a struggle,” Mansfield said, “but they have to keep trying.”