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By Kelli Yoder
Eighteen-year-old Lizzie Fish just wants a summer job. She wants to be able to pay for college and, plus, she doesn't like sitting around all day with nothing to do.
She spent spring break applying and when she didn't hear back, she kept trying. Since May, 15 businesses and counting have received her application.
Only one potential employer has contacted her at all and quickly turned her away when she told of her plans to attend college in the fall.
"I'm a good, hard worker and I don't understand why they wouldn't even call me," Fish said. She made Concord Community High School's High Honor Roll and she has experience in the food service industry and babysitting.
In a normal summer, an applicant like Fish would seem like the ideal part-time or seasonal worker. This summer, the national unemployment rate among teens was reported to be 18.7 percent for May, more than 2 percent higher than last year at the same time, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In the same month, the national overall unemployment rate went up from 5 percent to 5.5 percent.
In other words, this year there are simply a higher number of quality applicants for summer work.
Evidence of this has been seen at WorkOne in Elkhart, an organization that connects people to their employment needs. WorkOne helps young people like Fish every summer, by matching employers with employees through an online database, or in person.
"We've placed a lot of summer youth," said Denise Tiller, WorkOne's office manager. But that's not how it's working out this year.
"We have not had one employer place a summer job with us," Tiller said.
When unemployment rises nationwide, it's the students who get hit the hardest, according to Tiller.
Stuart Sheldon owns Goshen's Backyard BBQ and Grill, known for providing employment to high schoolers. He still hired his usual eight to 10 additional summer workers, but he's witnessed the change in another way.
This year, he's had stacks and stacks of applications. And more are from college students and recently laid-off adults than he's seen in the past.
"For once I'm not able to hire everybody that I want to," he said.
Tyson Scott has a broader view of this trend. He's branch manager of the Elkhart and Goshen region of international employment agency Manpower Inc.
He said his candidate pool used to stay around 30 to 40 people looking for employment. Now it has upwards of 100.
"Because unemployment's so high the candidate pool is so big that now we can be more selective," he said.
Scott said the college degree becomes a qualifier in that selectivity, of things like responsibility.
Andre Shenk, 21, has two degrees and still no summer job. Shenk is living in Goshen after double-majoring at Goshen College in history and Bible, religion and philosophy. He hoped to find summer work to save money for further schooling in the fall but has so far come up short.
In his job search, Shenk hoped having a degree would open a few more opportunities. He wanted to try something different than the manual labor, retail and construction that he'd done in past summers.
"The longer the job search goes on the more desperation sets in," he said. "It's gotten to the extent that I would accept about anything."
A friend of Shenk's, Yovana Bontrager, was in the same situation until a week or two ago, but ended up securing two part-time jobs.
She'd hoped for one full-time job, but her expectations didn't include finding degree-related work.
"I can't really do much with a B.A. in psychology," she said. Bontrager observed the same trend among her friends.
"It seems like a lot of people who just graduated this year don't really expect to get a job that has anything to do with their major, that if they happen to find that they're lucky," she said. "Now grad school is like an expected next step."
"I think education is a big factor for getting ahead these days," WorkOne's Tiller agreed.
But it's hard for people like Fish to think of going to school with an empty bank account.
"I would have to have a lot more loans and that would be really hard in the future for me," she said.
Jerrell Ross Richer, associate professor of economics in the business department of Goshen College, specializes in natural resource and environmental economics. He said that last month's report about rising teen unemployment is very significant.
But a defining element of the overall slump is the cost of oil. For that reason, he has specific advice for students.
"If I were a teen right now, I would start thinking about what a new economy would look like where we rely less on fossil fuels," he said.
"I think there are huge opportunities to help the whole county to develop new ways of moving people around," he went on.
That's pretty far from happening so far, and Shenk can attest. He doesn't have a car and that factor kept him from getting one of the jobs he'd applied for.
Fish's job search would be limited if her parents didn't pay for the gas in her car.
"Basically, I wouldn't be able to go anywhere," she said.
More immediately, organizations like WorkOne hope to encourage people to keep trying to find a job and use their time off to make themselves more employable.
"There are jobs out there," Tiller said. And from its side, WorkOne is implementing new programs and classes to better meet the needs of unemployed Elkhart County residents.
If the workers are skilled and ready to go, she said, maybe jobs will come to the county.
"And that's the ultimate goal, really," Tiller said. Unfortunately, that probably won't help Fish and her friends this year. Fish only has one friend who found a job for the summer.
"I don't know anyone else who's gotten a job in the past few months, and I've talked to lots of people," she said.
"It's going to be tough for our kids this year," Tiller said. "I think we're all just wondering what the heck is going on these days."
Contact Kelli Yoder at firstname.lastname@example.org.