WILMINGTON, Del. -- Shemi Benge, 18, just graduated from Kennett High School in Kennett Square, Pa., and wants to earn some cash before heading to Tulane University in New Orleans in the fall. The job applications she has dropped off so far have gone nowhere.
"It's hard finding your first job, because people want you to have experience," Benge said.
And in today's economy, there are plenty of people with that experience also looking for work.
Teens nationwide are finding it difficult to nail down a summer job this year. Economists foresee the worst summer job market for teens since 1948, when the government began tracking teenage work, according to research published by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston.
The U.S. Department of Labor reported on June 6 that the nation's unemployment rate in May climbed to 5.5%, up from 5% in April. It was the biggest one-month jump since 1986. And with schools closing and students entering the seasonal workforce, the rate among teens took an even bigger hit: 18.7% in May, vs. 15.4% in April.
As a result of weak consumer spending, businesses are hiring less and, in some cases, cutting jobs altogether.
And with the cost of necessities, such as gas and food, on the rise, many adults are finding that one paycheck isn't enough as they turn to low-skilled hourly jobs to supplement their income.
It is those adults who are creating lots of competition for teens, said Joseph McLaughlin, a research associate at the Northeastern labor studies center.
"Teens are the lowest in the hiring queue because they have less experience and can usually only work limited hours," he said. "They are the hardest hit in a recession. That's why we need strong job growth, so employers have to dig down and hire those 16- and 17-year-olds who have limited job experience."
This summer, 34% of teens nationwide will have a job, he said. More 20- to 24-year-olds are holding onto jobs that traditionally go to teens, and more 50- to 55-year-olds are snatching up jobs to supplement their retirements.
Gallucio's Cafe in Wilmington used to have a handful of teens working part time during the summer, but now, those positions have been replaced with full-time and year-round employees.
"Things have changed. The opportunities that were here aren't here anymore," said Bob Losey, Gallucio's owner. "It's harder for businesses to give summer jobs."
Losey said that while he has a few teens on staff, most of his employees are older and were hired before the summer.
Other businesses, such as SC&A Construction in Wilmington, just aren't hiring.
"In the past, we would have typically hired high school or college kids to do labor cleanup, lifting and carrying," said Jeni Albany, director of human resources for the construction company. "But those positions aren't available this year."
Russell Wiedenmann, general manager of Grotto Pizza in Newark, Del., said the summer exodus of University of Delaware students opened up 15 to 20 positions. He doesn't plan to fill them all, because summer is a slower season in the college town.
Wiedenmann said most of his applicants are between 16 and their mid-20s, but he would give people looking for full-time, year-round work the same consideration as student applicants.
New hire Dave Ilvento, 19, spent his third day at Grotto last week learning to make pizza.
He landed the job because a friend who was also looking for work alerted him to the opening.
"I gave (the friend) a little bit of grief because I found one and he didn't."