Job fair in Medford draws motivated teens

Handing in resumés to James Blackwell of Funplex in Mount Laurel are Lenape High School students (from left) Britney Frazier, 16; Amanda Agbaje, 16; Sydney Demo, 15; and Emily Brady, 16.
Handing in resumés to James Blackwell of Funplex in Mount Laurel are Lenape High School students (from left) Britney Frazier, 16; Amanda Agbaje, 16; Sydney Demo, 15; and Emily Brady, 16. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 20, 2013

Qualified zombie seeks work.

OK, that's probably not the first line of Ryan Surman's resumé, even though his employment history includes a Halloween stint that the Shawnee High School junior spent working at Medford's Indian Acres Tree Farm.

"I was a zombie," said Surman, 17, of Medford.

Surman now hopes that the job market wakes up the dead so that he and hundreds of his classmates, who gathered Monday at Lenape High School for a regional job fair for teenagers, can land work.

Youth employment is a grave issue because one in four teenagers who want work can't find it.

"I think it really needs to change," Surman said.

"They are always looking for someone older. But we're growing up with all this technology, and we might know something they don't," he said. "They think we are young kids and they don't trust us. But I'm not a young kid. I'm 17, almost 18, and I have a lot to offer."

On Monday, hundreds of high school students, most professionally dressed, with resumés in hand, attended the Lenape Regional High School District's second job fair in Medford.

The 7,000-student Burlington County regional district has four traditional high schools and one alternative high school.

"I'm very impressed," said David G. Scott, co-owner of Laurel Oak Garden Center & Landscaping in Marlton and Medford, one of 40 employers at the fair. He said he has 12 to 14 positions for teenagers in retailing and landscaping.

The teenagers, he said, face competition from college graduates who cannot find college-level jobs.

No wonder.

In Camden, Burlington, and Gloucester Counties, nearly one in 10 people, 9.8 percent, were unemployed in December, according to the U.S. Labor Department's most recent data.

"I'll tell you this right now," Scott said. "I've got highly overqualified people wanting to work for me - college graduates from good universities with high grade-point averages. They need to work to pay off their loans.

"It does make it a little more difficult for the teenagers."

The district worked hard to help the students compete.

On March 11, students could attend a job-preparation workshop to learn about proper dress, interviewing techniques, and resumé building.

"Our teenagers want to work," said Kim Mileszko, the district's job developer. "But they need help with the process."

Last year's fair at Lenape drew 800 students and 20 employers. This year, the number of employers doubled. "We got a very good response from the employers," she said.

Mileszko, who has four children, including two teens, said a job adds important stability to a teenager's life, particularly in the summer.

Monday's high school job fair coincided with the Labor Department's release of its monthly report on employment at the state level.

In January, the most recent data available, New Jersey's unemployment rate was 9.5 percent, unchanged from December but up from 9.2 percent in January 2012.

In Pennsylvania, unemployment rose to 8.2 percent from 7.9 percent in December and 7.6 percent a year earlier.

The national unemployment rate in January was 7.9 percent. It declined to 7.7 percent in February.

Throughout the rough economy of recent years, teenagers have had a particularly hard time.

Although teenagers typically have higher unemployment than adults, unemployment "has hit the young a little harder in this recession and in this recovery," said John Worrall, an economics professor at Rutgers-Camden.

By the time the recession had its official start in December 2007, the national unemployment rate for teenagers had already begun to creep up to 16.8 percent from a low of 14 percent in May 2006.

The proportion of unemployed teenagers has been rising even as the nation's unemployment rate has been falling.

Many teenagers choose not to work, but by definition, those teenagers are not unemployed. To be counted as unemployed by the Labor Department, the teenager must have looked for work in the previous month.

"Part of it is a skills issue," Worrall said, because teenagers are too young to have acquired a wide array of skills necessary for the workforce.

Another contributing factor, Worrall said, is that teenagers are not particularly "attached" to the workforce.

That's an economics term for the fact that teenagers haven't had a chance to build up the kind of job history and coworker network that would help them get and keep jobs. One reason, he said, is that teenagers tend to fill seasonal jobs.


Contact Jane Von Bergen at jvonbergen@phillynews.com, @JaneVonBergen on Twitter, or at 215-854-2769. Read her workplace blog at www.philly.com/jobbing.

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