WASHINGTON For millions of teenagers, summer should be the best time to earn a little extra cash -- if only anyone were hiring.
The summer job market for teens has never been tighter.
Two decades ago, half of all young adults between 16-19 worked, flipping burgers, cutting grass or tearing movie ticket stubs. This summer, only about one in three will likely find a job.
"Teens have been squeezed out of the labor market," said Joseph McLaughlin, a research associate at Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies and co-author of a recent report on the decline of the teen work force.
The number of teens with jobs hovered around historically high levels as recently as 2000, but it nose-dived with the recession that followed the 2001 terrorist attacks.
The overall health of the economy has rebounded since then, but the number of working teens has not.
Last summer, only 36 percent of teenagers worked, and McLaughlin and his colleagues expect that statistic to remain unchanged this year.
To fill jobs traditionally held by teenagers, like fast food and retail, companies increasingly turn to retirees looking for part-time work, recent immigrants and new college graduates unable to find career-track jobs.
The drop-off has left 1.6 million teens without work, according to the teen work force study.
Elizabeth King, who will soon turn 16, is among them. She started looking for a job in May, filling out scores of applications near her home in Severn, Md.
She needs money, she said, to buy an airline ticket for a Caribbean vacation later this year, and she hopes to save for a car.
"They always tell me they'll get back to me, but they never do," she said of would-be employers.
Though only a month remains before school starts, King has not given up hope of finding something. She has found other activities to occupy her time until she finds work and is spending part of the summer doing missionary work in Baltimore.
Like King, many teens are finding other ways to keep busy for the summer. They volunteer, take classes and do unpaid internships with an eye toward a better job later.
With many other options for workers, companies have less of an incentive to hire teens for summer positions.
Renée Ward, founder of a national Web site, teens4hire.org, that helps young adults find jobs, said many companies have grown skittish about hiring Generation Y teenagers.
Potential employers say they don't see a strong work ethic in the teens.
"If you talk to boomers, they feel they were taught an old-fashioned work ethic by their parents. They were taught how to work. The great majority aren't getting that same lesson today," she said.
The job market may be tight, but teens can still land a job if they search wisely. Blanketing applications at dozens of stores might work. But a technique that successful adult job seekers use -- networking -- will work better, Ward said.
"If you want to work at XYZ company at the mall, befriend someone who works at XYZ company at the mall," she said.
Acting like a professional is key.
Doing anything but dressing nicely and acting like an adult could spook a potential employer. Even little things can turn off a prospective employer.
"Look, it's not bad that your e-mail address is PimpDaddy99, but you're not going to get a job by putting it on an application," she said.