NEW YORK - Hunter-John Hurst, 16, is a living example of a modern-day conundrum. Like many others his age, he needs to earn money this summer. But finding a job is tougher than ever, with the number of teenagers employed across the United States at a near-historical low.
When his search failed to turn up a single offer, he decided to turn one of his chores - washing his parents' cars - into a business. He printed up some fliers offering car cleaning services - known in the trade as detailing - at US$35 (S$44) for a car, US$45 for an SUV.
A few days into his new business, he's feeling the glow of early success. "It takes about an hour a car and I can make more money than I would at a regular job," he said. And it's more fun than the lawn mowing he did last summer.
Hunter-John has company in his desperate quest for summer work and the need to get creative. About 25 per cent of the nation's 16- to 19-year-olds were in the workforce last year, from 45 per cent in 2000, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics.
Failing to find work doesn't just mean a shortage of cash in the near term. A study released in March by the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Programme said finding a job when you're older is harder if you haven't worked during your teenage years.
In addition, "research shows those who work in high school have wages 10 to 15 per cent higher when they graduate from college", said Mr Ishwar Khatiwada, a co-author of the study and an associate director of research at Northeastern University's Centre for Labour Market Studies.
Since 1948, the percentage of teenagers in the US workforce had stayed relatively flat at 40 per cent or so, dropping to 37 per cent in the mid-1960s and rising to a high of 48.5 per cent in 1979. But that trend began to reverse in the early 2000s and never rebounded, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics. The trend holds true when looking solely at summertime employment.
Low-income and minority teens are particularly hard hit; only about 17 per cent of African-Americans aged 16 to 19 were employed last year.
The story behind the low employment numbers is more complex than it first appears. While many teenagers are unable to find jobs, others place a higher value on summer school and pre-college summer programmes, which are far more popular than in the past, according to a report by the Bureau of Labour Statistics on declining summer employment rates for teenagers.
In more affluent areas, large numbers of teenagers play year-round sports that leave little time for work. Others perform community service or find unpaid internships.
"Real work experience is being displaced by summer and travel programmes," said Mr John Challenger, executive officer of outplacement company Challenger, Gray & Christmas. But he says he doesn't think that is necessarily a good thing.
"A lot of kids are missing out by not learning what working is," he said. They're also missing the process of job hunting. Part of the experience is developing persistence and the all-important skills of shaking hands, answering questions clearly and looking someone in the eye.
But over the years, the lower-level jobs that were once the entryway to employment for young people are being filled by older people who have remained in or returned to the workforce, or by foreign-born workers, Mr Khatiwada said.
Entrepreneurs such as Ms Renee Ward have turned to helping teens find jobs. Her site, www.teens4hire.org, offers some free advice and job-hunting tips, but charges US$39 for premium options that include job listings.
One teenager, she said, asked her if he should take a job with a moving company that wouldn't officially hire him but would pay him off the books.
"I told him to start there, document all your experience and use that to move as quickly as you can to a reputable company," she said.
Deshawn Childress, 18, is using the site as one way to look for a job. He has applied to many places so far without success. "People say volunteering is part of the work experience" but employers don't seem to view it as real experience, he said.
While job seekers can try innovative ways to attack the job shortage problem, the Brookings Institution study said high teenage unemployment also needed to be addressed through public policy.
The Boston Private Industry Council - financed with state, city and corporate money - works in Boston public high schools, where the students "are hungry for jobs", said Mr Josh Bruno, the council's director of school to career and employer engagement.
"We're trying to educate employers about how valuable it is to hire teenagers. Some we have are trilingual, many are really good at technology. They have a lot of energy and see things differently," said Mr Bruno.
Energy is one thing Lauren Castro, 17, needed. She had been looking for a part-time job for a year.
She got a few interviews and then "the inevitable e-mail saying they hired someone with more experience. I was tired of getting e-mail after e-mail saying I needed experience when I couldn't get it".
In the end, Lauren found out that the adage that it's who you know holds true. She has started on her summer job at a pizza parlour, thanks to her sister's soccer coach, who knew the owners.
And she's in good company. She's working with a college graduate with a bachelor's in biochemistry.