The summer job, long an entry-level rite of passage into the working world for teenagers, is becoming obsolete.
Under pressure to bolster their college applications, more students are shunning the character-building, low-paying first job for extracurricular activities and year-round academics.
Out are summers spent perched on a lifeguard chair slathered in zinc oxide, schlepping clubs on fairways or stacking boxes in a warehouse. In are science classes, tutoring sessions or other resume-worthy pursuits, all aimed at giving students a leg up on the competition.
Emblematic of that trend is Magali Ortiz, 18, a recent graduate of Northside College Prep, who spent every summer vacation away from the elite, selective enrollment Chicago public high school honing her powers of persuasion at a debate camp in Michigan.
“At my school there is sort of a culture of doing more academic things, as opposed to traditional jobs during the summer,” said Ortiz, who is headed to Tufts University. “It’s a way to kind of advance in high school and prepare for college.”
Ortiz, who lives in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood, eschewed employment during the school year as well, focusing instead on Advanced Placement courses, the debate team and several STEM internships through the nonprofit After School Matters program.
All school and no work may be the new normal for teenagers.
A study released this month by the Brookings Institution found that only one in three teens age 16 to 19 are either working or looking for a job, down sharply from 2000, when more than half of teens were in the labor force.
Reduced demand for low-wage work due to automation and globalization, minimum wage hikes and competition from older workers and immigrants all play into the trend, Brookings found. But the most dramatic shift for teens is the replacement of summer jobs with summer school.
“We used to think summer — everybody is out of school,” said Jay Shambaugh, a senior fellow in economic studies at Brookings who headed the research project. “A lot more high school students are actually in school in the summer than they used to be.”
Last year, nearly a third of teens were enrolled in summer school and not seeking work, according to the study. In 2000, just 1 in 7 teens were exclusively summer school students.
Summer school offerings include everything from remedial to enrichment courses — a chance to catch up or get ahead in an increasingly competitive academic environment, Shambaugh said.
To be sure, not every teen has the resources to forgo a part-time job as a way to either help with household expenses or save money for higher education. But families of limited means also are prioritizing school over work.
Fewer teenagers work during the school year as well, with labor force participation dropping from nearly 50% in 2000 to about 34% last year, according to Brookings. While employment trends are subject to the ups and downs of the overall economy, the seemingly secular year-round drop among teens accounts for more than a third of the decline in the overall labor force participation rate since 2000, Shambaugh said.
Beyond vying for admission to a top college, Shambaugh said there is another reason for the increased focus on academics: High school is harder than it used to be.
Elayna Whiteman, 15, of Glencoe, a rising sophomore at New Trier High School, is partially bucking the trend by working as an attendant at the Glencoe Beach this summer. But she said a part-time job during the school year is “impossible,” given the academic demands at the nationally-ranked North Shore high school.
Taking even a few high-level courses upsets the delicate school-life balance, she said. “I have water polo, I have debate, I have homework, so at the end of the day, there’s just not enough hours in the day,” Whiteman said.
Kinzie McElroy, 17, who recently graduated from Lake View High School on Chicago’s North Side, started training this summer to work as a barista at Philz Coffee in Lincoln Park, which is set to open in September.
It is her first real job, besides babysitting, and one she plans to keep while attending the University of Illinois at Chicago this fall. She will be living at home to defray costs, and helping to pay for her tuition and expenses.
McElroy attended Stagg High School in south suburban Palos Hills for two years before moving to Chicago’s North Center neighborhood with her mother, following her parents’ divorce. Increased academic demands at Lake View made it difficult to pursue part-time work during the school year. It also left McElroy needing to decompress during the summer — avoiding both school and work.
“School is stressful,” McElroy said. “I was overloading with a lot of AP classes. You just need time to relax and de-stress. The summer was that to me.”
Teen labor force participation reached an all-time peak of nearly 58% in 1979, according to Brookings. After years of gradual decline it dropped precipitously in 2000, bottoming out at about 35%, where it has sat for the last eight years.
Racial and ethnic backgrounds also play into the employment equation for teens, with whites more likely to work in the summer and the rest of the year, according to the Pew Research Center. Last summer, the employment rate for 16- to 19-year old whites was 37.5%, compared with 28.9% for Hispanics and 25.8% for African Americans .
In 2011, the city of Chicago under then-mayor Rahm Emanuel launched a program called One Summer Chicago to provide job opportunities, particularly for minority teens. There are about 32,000 youth participating in the program this summer, according to Cristina Villarreal, a city spokeswoman.
Last year, 93% of participants were nonwhite, with African Americans making up 63% of the youth, according to Villarreal.
Paid jobs this summer include camp counselor, making sandwiches at Potbelly and a new role — working with the Chicago Department of Water Management to distribute water filtration systems to residents.
Declining teen participation in the labor market has certainly affected the talent pool for employers, especially those who traditionally rely on younger workers during the summer.
Buona Beef, a Berwyn-based restaurant chain with 25 locations across Chicago and the suburbs, bolstered its workforce of about 1,300 full- and part-time employees by about 10% this summer, mostly by hiring teens.
Joe Buonavolanto, 56, co-owner of Buona Beef, who began working at the restaurant chain as a teen himself when it launched in 1981, said the entire labor market is tight. While the family-owned chain has served as the first job for many teens over the years, he said it is becoming more difficult to find and hire them — at least in certain locations.
“When we’re in a more affluent community, it’s a little more challenging to get the teenagers to want that job,” Buonavolanto said.
The trend has families and economists alike questioning whether teenagers might be better prepared academically, but ill equipped to handle the rigors of real-world employment without at least one seemingly meaningless early work experience under their belts.
Elayna’s mother, Ashini Whiteman, encouraged her to get the beach attendant job this summer for just that reason.
“I wanted her to experience what it’s like to work — the responsibilities of committing to something and actually sticking to it,” said Whiteman, 47, who worked as a telemarketer during her teen years growing up in Malaysia.
Elizabeth Nelson, 51, an attorney from Wilmette, valued her high school summer job at a grocery store while growing up in west suburban Addison, but put no such pressure on her daughter to earn a paycheck this summer. Instead, Nelson said she counseled her to seek “opportunities to enrich her summer experience” that might also impress college admissions officers.
“You have to be focused on school throughout the whole year,” said daughter Julia Nelson, 16, who will be entering her junior year at New Trier. “You don’t necessarily have summer breaks.”
Nelson, who is on the school swim team, took a required physics class last summer to get it out of the way.
When a planned history class was canceled this summer, she took a job teaching swim lessons to young kids. She also volunteers at the Field Museum and at the local library, non-paid positions which may prove more rewarding down the road.
“Those are things that she really enjoys…good experiences for her that she wants to be able to put on her college applications,” Elizabeth Nelson said.
While the Brookings study posits that increased attention to academics among teens may lead to a better outcome for society, Shambaugh said it remains an open question whether summer school tops summer work in the long run.
“It’s worth more research to figure out if you need to have spent a summer working a lousy job for low wages to have a good career later in life,” Shambaugh said. “I don’t know the answer, but we’re seeing the shift.”
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