For the past two summers, job-hunting was a cinch for Greg Tackett.
After his freshman year of college, one easy application landed Tackett a full-time internship at The Lexington School. He worked there for two summers, an experience he calls a "win-win situation."
But now a rising senior at Transylvania University, Tackett was eyeing his future after graduation. He wanted an internship more related to his double major in business administration and Spanish.
He combed the Internet for advertising and marketing positions, researching on places like Craigslist and his school's Career Development Center Web site.
But no luck. Nothing. Zilch. Nada.
After returning from his semester abroad in Spain, Tackett abandoned his dream of an internship and instead dispatched 15 applications for positions unrelated to his career aspirations.
Tackett finally secured a job at the Signature Club of Lansdowne working 20 hours a week, though he was hoping for something full-time.
"I was really disappointed," he said. This job "wasn't really what I was looking for."
Tackett's difficulties in the summer job market are hardly uncommon in today's economy.
Kentucky's 2008-09 unemployment rate for youth ages 16 to 19 is 22.2 percent — up 2.2 percent from last year's figure — said Justine Detzel, chief labor market analyst for the Kentucky Office of Employment and Training. The state's overall unemployment rate is 9.8 percent, a 25-year high.
Consulting firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas predicted in a recent ABC News report that this summer might be the first since 1954 that fewer than 1 million adolescents will find temporary employment.
Tough economy, tough times
Nick Fahey, a rising sophomore at the University of Kentucky, spent three weeks searching for a summer job, applying to 10 different places in hopes of finding "something to pay the rent next semester," he said.
He is spending his summer working two jobs, at Clean Sweep Carwash and Kroger, but finding these temporary positions wasn't easy.
"The job market is the worst that it's been in 25, 30 years," said Transylvania University's director of career development, Susan Rayer. "Job-search strategists say it is bad. It is bad."
Rayer said summer experiences can be critical for students' future career prospects, but competition is tougher than ever. She said the escalating number of applications combined with the shrinking number of jobs makes such opportunities especially tough to find.
Take for instance, the Division of Parks and Recreation, one of Lexington's most popular youth employers. Director Jerry Hancock said that Parks and Rec typically has trouble finding all 110 lifeguards that are needed for the city's pools.
This year, however, even though the organization is offering as many jobs as it had in the past, Parks and Rec has hired all of its lifeguards for the first time in 10 years. Hancock attributes the increase in applicants to the lower number of positions available to young people in the private sector.
For example, companies are cutting down on the number of paid internships they offer. Lexmark International will have 70 to 75 jobs for college students on its Lexington campus this year — roughly half the number the company had last year, said Paula Anderson, director of diversity and recruiting.
"I would have loved to have more (students), but it's (because of) the economic reality that we're in that our numbers are down," she said.
Rayer, of Transylvania, explains the competition in the summer job market as a "double whammy": Students must not only compete against their peers but also against retirees re-entering the work force and laid-off or downsized employees who "are willing to get any job they can," she said.
Deborah Jones, director of Centre College's career services office, said that finding paid positions — as opposed to unpaid internships — is particularly difficult. She said her gut feeling is that the people taking those kinds of temporary jobs are recent graduates or young adults who have been out of school one or two years.
Rising to the challenge
In the midst of this year's challenges with obtaining summer employment, Rayer said students have been presented with a unique job market that requires creative flexibility.
Rayer, Jones and Francene Gilmer, director of the Career Center at UK, offer advice for college students seeking to make the best use of their summers in this year's job market. They said students can land and still are landing internships; it's just that a considerable number might be receiving academic credit rather than weekly paychecks.
All three directors also said that in this year's job market, networking is more important than ever. According to Rayer, only 15 percent of job offers come from applications for advertised positions; the other 85 percent are obtained by word-of-mouth and connections.
There is another option. Low-income youth ages 14 to 24 can seek job training and paid work through the Kentucky Summer Youth Employment program, said Pat Dudgeon, coordinator of the state's Workforce Investment Act Youth Program. The federal government gave $15 million to fund the state program.
"The opportunities are still there," Gilmer said. Students "just have to work harder to get them."