The U.S. Department of Labor reports that each year about 3 million teenagers graduate from high school, and another 1.5 million earn a college degree. Unfortunately, for many, the fit between themselves and future employment is precarious at best. Teen labor force participation has been on a downward trend and the decline is expected to continue through 2024.

Researchers at the Department of Labor and at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) can’t give an exact reason why so many teenagers who want to work can’t find a job, but they have pointed to a number of reasons, among them is: competition from older workers who have had to return to the labor market, young underemployed college graduates who must settle for any and all job prospects, and the increase in immigrant workers—often much older and with a family to support—who sometimes occupy jobs that ordinarily would have gone to a teenager.

Teens fair poorly on employment rolls

California, naturally, employs more people than any state at any given time. Yet teenagers fair poorly on the employment rolls with a minimum of 17.9 percent of youth 16 to 19 years out of work, according to the latest statistics from the Department of Labor. In Los Angeles County, the teenage unemployment rate since 2014 has remained at no less than 16 percent. Traditionally, teenagers held summer jobs, even if they did not work during the school year. Labor force participation is usually higher in the summer, therefore it can be increasingly difficulty for a teenager to land a job beginning in mid June. The BLS reported that in 2016, the teen labor force participation rate was 43.2 percent, down almost 30 percentage points from the high point of 71.8 percent 40 years ago. In short, there is much more competition for jobs and therefore it is vital that the job search begins several months prior to the end of the school year.

Getting a teenager to understand the importance of landing a job is more critical now than in previous decades. In the 1980s and early ’90s, 40 to 50 percent of American teenagers held jobs, whereas in 2017 the national monthly unemployment rate (seasonally adjusted) for teens is 14.7 percent. Teenagers continue to struggle in a job market which has only improved slightly since the height of the Great Recession. Finding a job can be difficult, but it is not impossible. The typical teenager won’t make much more than minimum wage, but the work experience can be valuable as they develop the skills of responsibility and teamwork that are so needed in the future.

Older workers ‘crowd out’ the young

“Employment as a teen and as a young adult is correlated to future employment,” said Martha Ross who helped to author a Brookings Institution report in 2014 that focused on the best practices of increasing teenage employment. “If you get off to a rough start at this formative period of your life, it’s harder to get back on track.” Ross suggested that among the reasons why LA County teens have such a hard time finding a job is because of the area’s diverse workforce, which includes some immigrants who may have lower education levels and residents with a high school diploma or less. It’s the same truism held for generations: The more education you have, the more chance of landing a job.

“What may be happening is that older people are crowding out the prime-age people who are crowding out the young people,” Ross said.

Once a teenager begins earning money and paying for his/her own things, they will realize the amount of time and effort necessary to devote to a job in order to earn enough to cover bills. This scenario can build an appreciation for the value of money and encourages responsible money management. Pursuing a job and then failing to get it can teach a teenager resilience. When a teen experiences this type of rejection, it often can encourage him/her to seek out other opportunities and apply for them.

Working with others at an early age can enhance a teen’s interpersonal skills and prepare them for whatever career he/she chooses in the future. On the job, they learn to interact with people of all ages and backgrounds, which will teach them tolerance and self-confidence in dealing with others. The young person then learns the importance of taking directions from a manager and conforming to rules that, although sometimes may seem unusual and disagreeable, must be adhered to. Because employers tend to favor “self-starters,” the teenager who can work diligently and without too much supervision will often be asked back the next summer, or if they’re out of school be in a position to accept a full-time job.

An early job increases marketability

“The job situation in this economy is somewhat challenging for younger jobseekers,” said Juan Millan, a labor market consultant with the California Employment Development Department. “Now that the recession is over, the labor market (for lower educated workers) is expanding in leisure and hospitality. Many adult workers who were once employed in declining industries such as manufacturing, are now filling jobs in restaurants that were once common for youth and making it more difficult for younger jobseekers. Bottom line, the best way out of this catch is to get a higher education. The higher your education, the better the job prospects and pay for the rest of your life.”

Teenagers who get jobs, especially those who are close to graduating from high school, can sometimes see what type of employment opportunities are realistically available to them upon graduating. The knowledge gained from holding a job can drive him or her to increase their marketability and gain the option for a more challenging, better-paying job.

There are many factors that go into the successful job search. The majority of employers are interested in “soft skills” or, more plainly, “employability skills” that can set apart one job applicant from another said the website MonsterTrak. These are skills that allow people to do their jobs well under all circumstances. They are over and above any “technical” skills someone might possess, the first being good communication skills. If you’re working in any fast food or retail establishment, it is vital to have a “customer focused” attitude. Teamwork is another positive attribute. The youthful worker must have the ability to cultivate good relationships with fellow employees, according to the MonsterTrak website.

Thinking ‘outside the box’

Another attribute that employers look for is the ability to problem solve. The best worker must think “outside of the box” sometimes when solving a problem. Problem-solving skills can be helpful not just in a work environment, but in all areas of life. Teenage workers must demonstrate initiative and enterprise. The self starter mentioned earlier has what are often called “can do” skills and possess a “will do” attitude each day. Good planning and organization helps the young worker do ordinary things extraordinarily well. Self management is another favorable aspect of a good, young employee. These persons take ownership of their tasks and accept responsibility for the outcome. Then there is learning or searching out training in the skills and tools you will need to do the job well. Finally, technology can be the young worker’s best friend. While most teenagers are masters of social media and have terrific computer skills, there are areas of digital expertise that they may not know or utilize effectively, therefore learning more about how technology can help either your job search or work success can sometimes be invaluable.

Interaction with managers, other employees and customers are part of the daily responsibilities of a good employee. Social interactions at a professional level are much different than social interactions with friends at school, therefore the successful teen worker must be able to carry on a conversation “in-person” and know how to answer a phone in a professional manner. Good verbal communication skills are important because employers need their workers to be able to communicate effectively with managers as well as with customers. Good communication skills involve accurately conveying directions or problems. As well, non-verbal communication is important because eye contact positive body language can impress even the most demanding boss.

Good communication is vital asset

Most teenagers seeking that first paid job are completely unprepared and have no idea of where to start in the process. Many have no idea how to create a resume or complete a job application, how to act or what to say in a job interview, or even how to dress for success. Something seemingly as simple as completing an application can sometimes sink a job prospect. Teenagers must recognize the importance of writing legibly and spelling words correctly. Most jobs also tend to require some level of written communication so it is important for teens to be able to get their point across either on a computer or through their written words. Also, learning how to enter an office, shake hands, introduce themselves, smile and maintain eye contact can go a long way in impressing a prospective employer. Teenagers should also know how to discuss their strengths without sounding arrogant and how to convey an appropriate amount of confidence.

An early job can be a crucial transition into adulthood, says Lovell Fleming III, program coordinator of Antelope Valley YouthBuild. For 10 years the youth development program in Palmdale has worked with what they like to call “at potential” youth 16 to 24 years to earn their high school diploma, learn job skills, and serve their community in a variety of ways such as construction work around town.

“When teens start earning income on their own, they start to become less dependent on parents and family members,” Fleming said. “That first job sparks a sense of ownership and pride. Having a job allows for opportunities of self-discovery and self awareness. A young person’s first job is his/her first step into independence, self-discovery and stability.”

Tips for successful job search

Employers who hire teenagers recognize that they lack the experience and skills of more mature applicants. They, therefore, tend to focus on certain qualities that they believe will make a teenager a good employee. Among these important attributes are:

1) Well groomed/professionally dressed. Employers want to hire those who know how to dress appropriately. It is true that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. An employer typically starts forming an opinion of you from the moment you meet, based on what they see.

2) Reliability. This is important for teen workers. Employers are paying for a specific job and need to know they can count on you to do that job to the best of your ability. You are either an asset or a liability to an employer, and being dependable—showing up every day rain or shine—can make you a prized asset.

3) Punctuality. Because teenagers generally don’t have the experience of those who have worked before, they often don’t realize the importance of punctuality. You have been hired to work specific hours and if you are not there on time, the employer must find someone else to cover your duties for you. Constantly coming in late is often the quickest way to get fired.

4) Courteous and well mannered. Because you are representing the employer’s business, good manners are important. If you are working with the public at a fast food restaurant, for instance, you will most likely be the first person a customer comes in contact with. How you behave toward the customer will be the impression they take away about the business.

5) Trustworthy. Teenagers usually don’t have a work track record to allow the employer to check with a previous employer on how trustworthy you are. Many times, it’s a “leap of faith” for the employer. Knowing you can be trusted in any situation is a very attractive quality in a first-time employee.

6) Ambitious. Sometimes what teens lack in skills and experience, they can make up for in ambition. Employers often show favor to young people who are driven to succeed regardless of their hourly wage.

Employment experts attest that the more of these qualities a young person has, the better odds of landing a paid job, getting promoted, and, even if it’s only for a few months during summer break, increasing the chance of getting asked to return the next year.