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Teens finding plenty of competition for summer jobs

Twenty-four-year-old Diego Ch‡vez is an exchange student from QuiEcuador. Ch‡vez is one about 150 employees who are working Santa's Village

Twenty-four-year-old, Diego Ch‡vez is an exchange student from Quito, Ecuador. Ch‡vez is one of about 150 employees who are working at Santa's Village Azoosment Park in East Dundee. | Brian O'Mahoney~for Sun-Times Media

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ELGIN — William “Moses” Gibson says that when he was 17 last year, he applied for several summer jobs. But he got only the cold shoulder from would-be employers, and “after awhile I just stopped looking. It seemed like everybody my age was looking for a job and asking, ‘Who’s hiring?’”

So Gibson spent last summer doing volunteer work for his church and a day care center. When he occasionally wanted to go to a movie or needed pocket money for something, his parents would slip him a 10 or a 20.

But this spring, as he prepares to attend Elgin Community College, he put in just two or three applications before landing a 12-hour-a-week job behind the counter at the Coldstone Creamery ice cream shop in South Elgin.

Gibson’s experience may not be atypical. When you’re attending high school or college, it likely is part of your life plan to go to work over the summer break and pile up a bit of green stuff. And as the economy continues to improve, the jobs such teens pursued this summer seem to be at least a little more numerous.

But teen unemployment has exceeded 20 percent for the past four years. And an informal survey of Fox Valley employers shows that this year’s teens — especially the high-schoolers — continue to get beat out for what openings do exist by older teens with more experience, by teens returning to jobs they’ve held in past summers, and even by desperate adults who have been laid off from full-time, year-round jobs and now are willing to take a near-minimum-wage position just to get out of the house and come closer to making ends meet for the next three months.

Hot businesses

Fortunately, many types of endeavor need more workers at the same time colleges and high schools get out for the summer.

For decades, for example, one of the biggest summer employers was Santa’s Village amusement park in East Dundee, with most of its activities open only in the summer and up to 300 teens in its June-to-August work force. And now that it has reopened as the “Santa’s Village Azoosment Park,” it hired 120 “full-time seasonal” people to man its rides and feed its animals through the 2013 summer season.

“We hired about 10 percent more than last year because every year we have been adding more things,” said Manager Don Holliman.

But Holliman said one thing is different in this land of fun than when he was first hired at the original Santa’s Village as a ride operator in the 1960s: Even with a starting wage of just the state minimum, $8.25 an hour, a smattering of adults applied for those jobs along with the college and high school kids.

“The way the job market is, we have all ages this year,” Holliman said. “The youngest is 16 and the oldest is 70. A lot of adults are out of work and their unemployment (insurance) is about to run out. They want to get out of the house and this is a fun place. We have several adults operating rides right alongside the 16-year-olds.”

That doesn’t mean that 120 new people landed jobs at Santa’s Village, he cautions. Maybe two-thirds of those working here worked at the park in past years.

For example, 20-year-old Illinois State University student Brittany Schultz, who now answers phones in the office and fills in on breaks at the gift shop counter, is in her third season at the park. “I was a four-sport athlete in high school, so I didn’t have time to work,” she said. “This was my first job.”

Older workers

Representing competition from the older generations is 57-year-old Alice Harris of Elgin. Harris said she went to a Santa’s Village job fair last year after her two sons grew up and moved out, and she landed a job operating rides. As she guided 5-year-olds onto and off the Midge-O-Racers ride Friday, she said that “I’ve had different customer service jobs through the years, and I’ve worked in factories. But this is the best. I’m a people person and I love dealing with kids.”

Harris’s constant cheerfulness and enthusiasm earned the baby boomer the Santa’s Village Employee of the Year Award for 2012.

This year, teen applicants at Santa’s Village even faced foreign competition. Six college students from Ecuador, visiting the U.S. on a “J-1 visa,” are working in various jobs at the park. Manning a kiosk that sells souvenirs and headache remedies, 24-year-old Ecuadoran biochemistry student Diego Chavez said the delegation has used their days off to tour “Millennium Park and Cloudgate and that lake you have, I think it’s called the Michigan Lake.”

Used to living on the equator, where every day is almost equal in length, Chavez said, his biggest surprise about North America was how late the sun sets in June.

As summer wears on, Santa’s Village will hire some new people to replace a handful who quit, Holliman said — maybe more than a handful, he said, if the weather equals last summer’s string of 100-degree days. But in general, as with most summer jobs, if you wanted to work at Santa’s Village, you had to apply weeks before classes got out.

Cinema veterans

Another “fun” location that spikes in the summer is the movie theater.

“We don’t hire people with the intention of having them just for the summer,” says Chris Johnson, vice president of Classic Cinemas. But with schools out, more people flock to the movies. So Classic ups its work force by 50 to 100 people at its theaters, which include the Charlestowne 18 in St. Charles and the Cinema 12 in Carpentersville.

Johnson cautioned that many or most of the summer increase consists of veterans who worked for Classic Cinemas while they were in high school, went away to college, and now have resumed working there while they are back in town for the summer. New high school kids and adults are hired continually through the year.

One of those returnees is Adriana Negron of St. Charles, a 21-year-old Northern Illinois University accounting student who has worked at Charlestowne for four summers.

Manning the concession counter Thursday at Charlestowne, 16-year-old Grace Holmes of St. Charles said she had no problem finding a job when she felt old enough and needed spending money. At first she organized the store for a scrapbooking business run by a friend’s mother. She sewed bags for trade shows. And this spring she landed the theater job, where she works 15 hours a week while learning Italian as she prepares to study in Europe this fall.

But Holmes agrees with some theorists who have said that because people are so prosperous nowadays, some of today’s teens don’t feel the ambition their parents did at the same age. “We have a lot of rich people in St. Charles who get all the money they need from their parents and don’t feel they need to work,” Holmes said.

Tearing tickets, 19-year-old NIU student Daniel Stubbs of St. Charles said he applied three times at Charlestowne 18 before getting hired a year ago. While he was in high school, he was able to make money only by mowing neighbors’ lawns and doing chores around the family home.

Like most teen-oriented jobs, cleaning auditoriums and dishing up popcorn doesn’t pay much — “pretty much minimum wage,” Johnson says — and you’ll be working when everyone else has a day off, including holidays.

But at least you’re around mostly happy customers, Johnson notes. “I once hired a manager who previously had been in charge of handling lost luggage for Midway Airlines. He was glad to finally be dealing with people who weren’t all mad at him.”

Johnson sees two signs that the job market remains tight: Turnover has dropped drastically; there used to be a lot more coming and going because other entry-level jobs were easier to get. And friends call him now, asking about jobs for their sons and daughters.

Parks, preserves

Another type of operation that gears up its employment needs when the weather turns nice is a park or forest preserve. Pools operated by the city of Elgin and Dundee Township Park District arrange their season to match when teenagers are out of school and available to work as lifeguards.

At the Kane County Forest Preserve District, spokeswoman Laurie Metanchuk said hiring was up this year. But there was a catch: District rules say that employees must be at least 18 years old.

Metanchuk said the forest preserve district hired 57 “summer seasonals” this year, up from 43 last summer, out of some 200 applicants. They include paid interns who are studying planning and development, human resources, natural resources and even Metanchuk’s own specialty, community affairs, in college and want practical experience to add to their resume. But most summer workers clean and mow the various preserves, close gates, etc., she said.

One reason for the staff increase, she said, is that the district is about to open a new campground at Big Rock Forest Preserve.

On the other hand, little Hampshire Township Park District hired just two part-time teen summer workers this year, “to mow grass and manicure our ball diamonds with push mowers,” Executive Director Robert Whitehouse said.

Again,teenagers here are getting beaten out for other jobs by older people.

“We have some senior citizens who come back every year to mow lawns on tractors,” Whitehouse said. “We won’t put teenagers up on a tractor, and seniors also are available to keep mowing before classes get out in the spring and after classes resume in the fall.”

Other openings

One former staple of summer hiring used to be the construction industry. But not since the collapse of home-building.

“When there are so many experienced adult laborers sitting on the bench, it’s hard to justify hiring a college or high school kid instead of someone whose life work has been in this industry,” said Mike Shales of Elgin-based Shales-McNutt Construction (SMC) general contractors.

“When times were better, we had college interns studying construction management,” said Ian Lamp of Elgin’s Lamp Inc. “But now we’re just trying to have enough work to keep our current employees.”

A young person must have applied for most summer jobs months ago. But one place that takes job applications year around is South Elgin-based Bearco Management, which operates 10 McDonald’s restaurant franchises in the Elgin area.

According to Bearco co-owner David Bear, “We increase our work force when there’s more business, and typically that is in the summer. We’re in a mode now of increasing our staff” in addition to continually replacing employee attrition that amounts to about one-third of the work force each year.

But sometimes a teenager can fall in love with the job he or she shuffled into as a temporary stopgap and that can turn into a lifelong career. Bear said one of his greatest thrills is to see “people with only a high school education, who have been told they would never amount to anything, start working with us and a few years later, they’re a store manager running a $2.5 million business.”

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