The figures are based on an analysis of Census Bureau Current Population Survey data from June to August 2011 by Northeastern's Center for Labor Market Studies. They are supplemented with research from Christopher L. Smith and Daniel Aaronson, two Federal Reserve economists, as well as interviews with Labor Department economists and Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a national job placement firm.
About 5.1 million, or just 29.6 percent, of 16-to-19 year olds were employed last summer. Adjusted for seasonal factors, the rate dips to 25.7 percent. In 1978, the share reached a peak of nearly 60 percent before waves of immigration brought in new low-skill workers. Teen employment remained generally above 50 percent until 2001, dropping sharply to fresh lows after each of the past two recessions.
Out of more than 3.5 million underutilized teens who languished in the job market last summer, 1.7 million were unemployed, nearly 700,000 worked fewer hours than desired and 1.1 million wanted jobs but had given up looking. That 3.5 million represented a teen underutilization rate of 44 percent, up from roughly 25 percent in 2000.
By race and income, blacks, Hispanics and teens in lower-income families were least likely to be employed in summer jobs. The figure was 14 percent for African-American teens when their family income was less than $40,000 a year, compared to 44 percent of white teens with family income of $100,000-$150,000. Hispanics in families making less than $40,000 also faced difficulties (19 percent employed), while middle-class black teens with family income of $75,000-$100,000 did moderately better, at 28 percent employed.
Based on teen employment from January to April this year, also at historic lows, the share of teens working in jobs this summer is expected to show little if any improvement.
"We're seeing a cultural change. Parents used to tell their kids, go to the retail store or gas station and find a job in the summer, but it's not happening as much anymore," said John A. Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. He urges teens who desire jobs to find them by asking parents' friends and meeting hiring mangers face to face, rather than simply e-mailing or dropping off resumes.
"The question is where teen employment has bottomed out. Have we reached that limit? I don't know," he said.
According to government projections, the teens entering the U.S. labor force are expected to decline another 8 percentage points by 2020. By that time, young adults ages 16 to 24 will make up 11 percent of the labor force. While increased schooling is a factor, much of the recent employment decline is due to increased competition from other age groups for entry-level jobs that teens normally would fill.
Smith, the Fed economist, attributes at least half of declining teen employment since the mid-1980s to youths who are being crowded out of the job market by older workers and immigrants, pointing to recent technological changes that have thinned the ranks of midlevel jobs such as bank teller and sales representative.
His working paper for the Federal Reserve points to "potentially troubling long-term consequences" to the extent that jobless teens are not utilizing their time to go to summer school or do other college-preparatory work. His analysis of government data found that jobless teens across all income groups were often spending the extra time watching TV, playing video games and sleeping rather than on educational activities.
Nicole Shaw, 18, of Baton Rouge, La., is working to make sure she isn't a victim of the jobs pinch. She was hired as a restaurant waitress after a family friend tipped her off about an opening earlier in the year. In a state where teen employment is 10th worst in the nation, Shaw has become the youngest employee in her workplace by several decades while her friends continue to struggle to find summer work.
Still, she gets paid just $2 an hour plus tips, making it hard to accumulate real savings.
"I'm mostly just trying to help out my family and save for college," Shaw said, expressing hope that she will be able to build on the work experience for the future. "Even though you can be the best waitress you can be, the tips, they tip you whatever. I love my job, it's just the pay."
Associated Press writers Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Ariz., and Sheila Kumar in Baton Rouge, La., contributed to this report.
State-by-state data from analysis by Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies: http://apne.ws/LXDtcp