WILLMAR -- In the past couple of years, the stack of applications from young people wanting a job at the Willmar Dairy Queen has been thicker than owner Fred Anderson has ever seen.
"That means there's a lot of kids looking for work," said Anderson.
Youths are being edged out of the job market in record numbers in Minnesota. Workers between the ages of 16 and 19 have the highest unemployment rate of any demographic. In 2010, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available, unemployment was at 21.1 percent for young workers in this age group -- more than twice the rate of unemployed adult workers.
Youth unemployment significantly worsened during the recession. In 2009 and 2010, the number of youths out of work was the highest in more than a decade, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
Teens are still a staple in the work force, especially for seasonal summer work. At Willmar Community Education and Recreation, LeAnne Freeman relies heavily on high school and college-age students for summer jobs at swimming pools and the city beach. There are openings each year for lifeguards, for managers and cashiers at the Dorothy Olson Aquatic Center and for summer staff at the Willmar Community Center.
The number of applications has held steady, Freeman said.
This summer she hired about 40 seasonal workers. "I have a good turnover every year," she said. "A lot of them are college students."
But for teens seeking a job, there's often stiff competition for a limited number of openings.
Anderson, who owns two Dairy Queens in Willmar and employs about 30 people almost year round, figures he hands out 15 applications a week.
"In 40 years I've only hung out a 'help wanted' sign twice," he said.
His workers, who often start as sophomores in high school, tend to stay at the Dairy Queen for years, he said. "There's not a lot of turnover."
Unemployment is especially high among youths of color. In 2009, Minnesota's unemployment rate was 21.1 percent for all youths but twice that for minority teens.
Lack of skills can be an even greater barrier for young workers than for adults. In order to be hired as a lifeguard, for instance, Red Cross certification is required, Freeman said. "There's a lot of good kids out there, but to be a lifeguard you've got to go through the training."
Budget cutbacks also have resulted in fewer positions to fill.
Freeman starts hiring in April for seasonal staff but must take her program's budget into account. This past year some part-time positions were eliminated at the Willmar Community Center, she said. "I haven't hired as many out there this year."
Although Minnesota has more youths than the national average who are working or actively seeking work, this share has been declining steadily for the past 15 years. As recently as 10 years ago, more than 64 percent of Minnesota teens participated in the work force. By 2010 this had dropped to 51.3 percent, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
Yet researchers point to the benefits of youth employment in preparing young people to hold down a future job. Some studies have found that early exposure to work experiences is one of the leading predictors for success in the work place.
Anderson, who has employed 600 to 800 local youths over the last 40 years, says young people can learn important lessons when they work.
"They gain loyalty to the job," he said. "They learn to be prompt. They learn to get along with customers and their fellow staff. They learn that if you give a free ice cream to your brother, you're fired."