Teens cashing in on labor market

Local businesses enticing employees with high wages, but demand means some workers can develop bad habits

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— In part due to Routt County's low unemployment rate, now down to 3.9 percent, many local employers are hiring teens to fill open positions and hoping they'll stay.

But the teen employment market is so tight that some employers are having a tough time keeping them, and some teen-agers, feeling they have the upper hand, are learning bad work habits.

"We really rely on the kids," said John Thrasher, human resources director for the city of Steamboat Springs.

"Hanging onto seasonal workers is tough. It's a very difficult market right now. If laborers look over their shoulder and see a job offering a dollar more an hour, off they go. We have to be very sensitive about that," Thrasher said.

The Steamboat Springs Work Force Center has been helping students find summer work. Summer youth coordinator Amber Edney visited schools in the spring to register students, then got job offers from area employers and finally called up registered students to match them with work.

"Everyone's looking for workers," she said. "Compared to last year at this time, we have a couple more teens working.

"A lot of them are doing contracting work, laboring, and food service," Edney added. "The biggest teen hirer through the work force center is Fox Construction."

Fox Construction is feeling the pinch from the tight labor market right now because most of the construction workers in Steamboat are highly skilled and in great demand during the summer months, office manager Rachel Adrian said.

"We really do rely on the students," she said. "They're great, they want to work, and they make really good money."

Fox Construction has six students doing manual labor and site clean-up work.

The teen-agers started at $10 an hour, not uncommon in Steamboat where many teens are paid much more than the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. Teen laborers are making an average of $9 to $10 an hour and teen-age food service workers are starting at up to $9 an hour.

McDonald's is currently hiring workers to start at $8.50 per hour; Pizza Hut is hiring cooks to start at $9 an hour; and Wal-Mart is hiring cashiers at $8.75 an hour.

The local Work Force Center has been trying to persuade local employers to lower their minimum age for employment, Edney said.

"Many won't hire 14- to 17-year-olds because of insurance reasons and a lack of work ethic," she said. "Also adults are more likely to stick things out, while teens are only there for the summer."

Nevertheless, many employers have to take advantage of the extra hands available in the summer, and organizations like the Community Youth Corps, Work Force Center, and the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps help make sure that the teens have jobs.

"A lot of projects wouldn't get done if the kids weren't working," said Michelle Petix, teen program coordinator for the Community Youth Corps. "They either wouldn't get done or the city would have to pay adult workers to do them jobs like painting the bike tunnels, for example. The city is psyched to have us because otherwise jobs like that wouldn't be done."

Students hired for the Community Youth Corps work during a two-week session. They spend the first week, in crews of four to five, working in town on a project like painting the bike tunnels. During the second week the crews camp out and work for a project agency, like the U.S. Forest Service or Colorado State Parks. Students can be hired as young as 14 years old, and make $6.04 an hour.

"They bring home about $380," Petix said. "It's a good amount of time for workers between 14 and 16 years old, because they're still young to be working all summer. They have family vacations, sports, and other commitments."

Gretchen VanDeCarr, at the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, said her organization has filled all of its positions, but that it has a smaller list of alternate workers than usual.

The Youth Corps has hired 54 16- to 19-year-olds and 32 18- to 25-year-olds. The crews of nine workers and two leaders live and work in the backcountry for about four weeks. They work 40 hours a week, spend 10 hours a week on educational activity, and are provided with food, equipment and gear. The younger crews bring home about $240 per week, while the older crews make about $300 per week.

But there are fewer teens committing to programs like the youth corps, because they have other opportunities to make more money.

"Resort areas like Steamboat have a low unemployment rate," VanDeCarr said. "The lowest we've had here in a long, long time. The kids have more opportunities, but there are still a lot more kids than jobs."

VanDeCarr said the fact that demand outpaces supply can lead to such problems as teen workers who don't have to make a strong commitment to their summer jobs learning bad habits.

"They can show up late, and the next day either face getting fired or not show up at all," she said. "Some of them choose not to show up, and there are still plenty of jobs they can choose from after that. They can afford to make decisions like these. Low unemployment, in my opinion, instills poor work ethic and job responsibility in young people."

It is unlikely that Colorado, which had an unemployment rate of 1.8 percent in the second fiscal quarter, will get relief over the near-term, said Jeff Thredgold, an economic consultant to Vectra Banks Colorado.

"Some people hope that the economy will slow a little bit and that the labor situation will ease," he added. "It's not going to happen. The U.S. work force is expected to grow by just 1 percent a year, when job growth is expected to be 2 percent a year. It's still a mismatch."

To reach Bonnie Nadzam call 871-4205 or e-mail bnadzam@amigo.net

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