COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — You know the economy's bad when teens can't get summer jobs at fast-food restaurants or movie theaters.
So thousands are picking up shovels, brooms and trash in part-time jobs paid for with federal stimulus money, which includes $1.2 billion for youth employment.
"I was looking for jobs everywhere, and no one was calling back," said 17-year-old Ryan Stewart of Littleton, Colo., who applied at McDonald's, Wendy's and other restaurants but heard nothing back. Now he's spending the summer pulling weeds for $7.50 an hour at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge just outside Denver.
Stewart is one of 25 extra seasonal youth hired with stimulus funds by the Mile High Youth Corps, an AmeriCorps affiliate. This day's task: uprooting invasive hound's tongue plants from a meadow.
To qualify, workers have to be 14 to 24 years old. They're the part-timers who are often the first chucked from jobs when recession hits. Last month, the national unemployment rate was 9.4 percent. For teenagers, the rate was more than twice that, 22.7 percent.
"It's very, very difficult out there right now for younger workers," said Jeanne Mullgrav, commissioner of New York City's Department of Youth and Community Development. City officials estimate that $18.5 million in stimulus money will support more than 13,300 summer jobs in museums, parks and camps.
Vice President Joe Biden has said the stimulus will create 125,000 summer jobs nationwide and help keep teens off the street and out of trouble. While that number is murky and largely unverifiable, local officials say they've been overwhelmed by applications for the new part-time jobs. Some agency waiting lists are in the thousands.
"We have definitely been swamped," said Lynn Parmentier, employment coordinator for Summit County, Ohio. The county is using $193,000 to hire part-time workers, including teens, to provide landscaping and janitorial help for the All-American Soap Box Derby in Akron in July.
"Kids do want to work, but in this economy, it's highly competitive," Parmentier said.
Without the stimulus money, job placement officers say, many young people would be left jobless this summer even as they're being asked to pick up more of the family tab. Out-of-work parents often ask teens to earn their own spending money or help with back-to-school clothes and college costs. Sometimes, the parents themselves are looking for part-time work to make ends meet.
"These young people are competing for their parents' jobs, and in a lot of cases they're supporting their families, too," said Sandra Rodriguez of Capital Workforce Partners, a Connecticut jobs agency.
Labor officials say government subsidies for young workers help the economy in several ways. First, teens are more likely than older workers to spend their paychecks immediately. Also, states can use stimulus money to subsidize internships at private companies, giving the firms some low-cost help.
Internship subsidies are being used in drug stores and auto shops in New York City; insurance companies in Hartford, Conn.; even a high-tech lithium-ion battery producer in Joplin, Mo.
"Because of the assistance financially, we were able to expand our internship program this year even though things are tight," said Creed Jones, vice president for human resources at EaglePicher Technologies in Missouri. The company had 12 engineering interns last summer. It hired 24 this year.
Younger teens are honing future careers, too, even in manual hourly jobs.
Back in Colorado, 17-year-old Del-Rae Collins applied for the Mile High environmental crew only after she failed to get a summer job at movie theaters and grocery stores. Now she's enjoying her time in the field and is considering studying something in the environmental field instead of medicine when she goes to college.
"This is much better" than the hourly jobs she originally wanted, she said. "You're working and learning, too."