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The economy's hidden engine

By Andrew Conte, Post staff reporter

When crowds of teen-agers file into the Historic German Festhaus at Paramount 's Kings Island today, park managers will tantalize them with jobs paying up to $9 an hour and incentives such as theme parties, park passes and discounts on new cars. Anyone recommending a friend who also gets hired receives a $50 bonus. It's all an effort to fill the park's 4,400 seasonal spots. Despite such offerings last year, the park fell ''hundreds short'' of its hiring goal, said one recruiter.

''Every year it is a challenge,'' said Jeff Siebert, park spokesman. ''It's great for employees. If you want to be employed, there are plenty of jobs available.''

With unemployment at record lows, teens are increasingly finding they can dictate their pay, work hours and the limits of their willingness to mop bathroom floors. Employers know they could lose disgruntled staff to eager competitors no further away than the nearest shopping mall.

More than one million American teen-agers will enter the workforce this summer, swelling their ranks to more than three million nationwide. With Cincinnati 's unemployment at an historic 3 percent, those workers have more leverage than ever.

Only the least employable people are still scrubbing toilets or bending over in hot farm fields, recruiters said. One fast-food restaurant manager scoffed at the idea of hiring anyone for minimum wage.

Instead, Wendy's restaurants and other fast food chains are scouring local high schools for workers. Some individual stores are offering new employees $100 signing bonuses, and giving them an additional $50 if they stay for even one week.

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''With today's labor shortage, employers can't find skilled help of any age,'' said Gary Flesch, labor market analyst with the Ohio Bureau of Employment Services. ''Employers are trying to become more and more creative to fill their labor needs.''

Teens represent just 5 percent of all workers, but some industries could hardly survive without them. More than a quarter of all restaurant and food preparation employees are teens, according to the National Restaurant Association.

Twenty percent of all grocery workers and 15 percent of department store employees are between the ages of 16 and 19, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Young people also have 16.2 percent of the entertainment industry jobs.

For the most part, these teens are every bit as productive as adult workers, but they typically need extra training and nurturing by older managers, said Kathleen Dickinson, a Las Vegas-based ''relationship facilitator'' who coaches employees on hiring teens.

Some teens were raised with little or no adult supervision, she said, and now need managers willing to teach them and listen to their ideas.

''They try real hard and they want to succeed,'' Ms. Dickinson said. ''They are basically good kids. It's just that no one has paid attention to them.''

At age 14, the minimum for most jobs, 57 percent of teen-agers perform some kind of work, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nearly one-in-four holds a formal job and the others do work such as baby-sitting or mowing lawns.

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More than half of all teens work in the retail industry and restaurants. Ten percent work in grocery stores. Another third work in service industries such as nursing homes.

By high school graduation, 80 percent of all students say they have worked at some point.

For many, their jobs mean little more than another extra-curricular activity - something to fill the time between school and homework.

On the job with their friends and classmates, young cashiers and baggers at the Sharonville Kroger figure they would be hanging out with the same people anyway. Might as well make extra money for clothes, cars and movie tickets, they said.

''I like it - it's just kinda time off,'' said Lauren Starling, 15, spraying rows of pink and purple hyacinths in the Kroger flower shop. ''I don't have to think too much and I get stress out.''

With little to keep her occupied in the evenings, Kim Sweeten decided she would fill her hours by working as a cashier in a Wendy's restaurant. The West End teen typically works seven hours a night but counts school as her first priority.

''I put school before my job,'' said Miss Sweeten, 16, who does most of her homework at school.

For most, work will be a positive experience - giving them extra discipline and taking little away from their education. Few teens work to support their families as they did in the past, and most are now just earning extra money for their personal expenses.

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Still, teens face many hazards in the work force:

Roughly every five days, an American teen dies on the job - equal to about 70 adolescent deaths every year. Another 200,000 will be injured while working; half of those seriously hurt.

No industry is more dangerous than agriculture, where labor laws allow teen-agers to work at younger ages and perform more hazardous tasks. Children may enter the fields as soon as they can walk in some states.

An estimated 13,000 American children are employed in U.S. sweatshops. They are among the 148,000 children and teens holding illegal jobs, according to estimates by Doug Kruse, economist at Rutgers University 's School of Management and Labor Relations.

The Department of Labor employs roughly 1,000 federal inspectors and Ohio another 17, but enforcement of child labor laws too often depends on random chance or complaints from disgruntle d workers, officials said.

''We have to pick the worst cases and complaints or think strategically and focus on one thing,'' said Don Harrison, assistant district director for the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage & Hour office in Cincinnati . ''But if we're doing restaurants, we're not doing grocery stores. ''

In that environment, no one has more leverage to protect teen workers than they have themselves. With employers such as Paramount 's Kings Island desperate to find enough qualified workers, teens are more likely to find employers offering many concessions up front.

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The park has raised wages in most of its departments, helped with transportation and become more creative in its offerings. Park managers host barbecue picnics for employees or operate rides in the early morning for workers' use. The most dedicated employees will win certificates worth $500 discounts on new car purchases. Others will receive theme park passes.

Even so, recruiters worry they will not meet their hiring quotas.

Nancy Raimey, director of the Ohio Bureau of Employment Services' Cincinnati office, is traveling to local high schools, helping the theme park find employees. Realistically, she knows there are simply not enough young workers to fill demand.

''Based on last year's experience with Kings Island , they fell really short in terms of what they wanted for the summer - hundreds short,'' she said.

Work Rules

bulletMost Ohio employers who hire teen-age workers must meet these federal and state guidelines.
bulletTeen-agers must be at least 14 to apply for most types of work, excluding family businesses or farms.
bulletOhioans younger than 18 are prohibited from holding jobs in mining, demolition, logging and meat-packing or jobs that require operating most power machines, handling explosives or chemicals, climbing on roofs, driving a motor vehicle and making brick or tile.
bulletWhile school is in session, anyone aged 14 or 15 cannot work before 7 a.m. or after 7 p.m. and may not exceed more than three work hours on a school day or 18 hours on a school week. People aged 16 or 17 may not work before 6 a.m. or later than 11 p.m. , Sunday through Thursday.
bulletWhen school is not in session, minors aged 14 and 15 cannot work later than 9 p.m. or log more than eight hours a day, 40 hours per week. Teens ages 16 and 17 can work any time.
bulletInformation: Ohio Wage & Hour Division - (614) 644-2239; U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health - (800) 35-NIOSH (64674).

Publication date: 03-11-00

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