Teen summer job market shows signs of recovery

FORTUNE — Putting some cash aside for college is looking easier this year than it has for quite a while, according to a new nationwide survey by hourly job site Snagajob.

Seventy-eight percent of employers expect to bring on board as many or more seasonal workers than they did last year, and those employees will earn more, too. Their average hourly wage: $10.39, or 29 cents higher than the Obama Administration’s proposed $10.10 federal minimum.

The highest pay for summer help is in the hospitality business, at an average of $10.89 an hour, food service ($10.43), and retail ($10.07). How much employers plan to pay also varies by location, the survey found. Average hourly wages in Western states are highest, at $11.10, followed by $10.19 in the Midwest, $10.19 in the East, and $9.60 in the South. “The higher wages this year are a definite sign that the economy is recovering,” notes Kim Costa, a job search coach at Snagajob.

In 2013, slightly more than half (52%) of summer hires were “seasonal employees from past years who were coming back,” she says. This year, companies report that only 23% fall into that category. “Almost 80% will be new workers, which reflects the fact that more adults are finding full-time, year-round work,” she says. “So, with less competition from returning workers, high school and college students have a better chance of getting jobs.”

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How many students want to work this summer, though, is another question. Although about one-third of employers that took part in Snagajob’s survey expect more applicants than in the past, they may be disappointed. Much has been made of the fact that labor force participation among teens has dropped off by 43% since before the recession. But according to an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data by Chicago outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, it’s a lot less dire than it looks. Most teens who aren’t in the labor force now “are not seeking a job,” the report says, “because they do not want a job.”

More precisely, they don’t have time for one. Many workforce studies lump teens together with people in their early twenties, but the Challenger report takes a different tack, zeroing in on the 16-to-19-year-old labor market only. In that narrower age group, labor force participation has actually been falling steadily every year since its peak of 71.8% back in mid-1978 — and has kept on declining even through economic boom times.

“It’s not that these teens are lazy, in fact quite the opposite,” says CEO John Challenger, pointing to reams of data showing that kids are “spending a lot more time and effort on extracurricular activities, summer school, sports, volunteering, and other activities aimed at gaining an edge in college admissions. There’s little room left in their schedules for traditional part-time or summer jobs.” He adds that many kids are earning “walking around money” from other sources, like doing odd jobs around their neighborhoods or from their parents.

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For anyone who does hope to find a job this summer, Snagajob’s Kim Costa offers three tips. First, “employers are telling us that the hardest shifts to staff are nights and weekends, when students usually want to hang out with their friends,” she says. “So a willingness to work those hours is a definite advantage.” Second, by far the largest number of employers (42%) in the survey named “enthusiasm and eagerness to have the job” as the top characteristics they’re looking for, so “a positive attitude really helps,” Costa notes.

And third, now is the time to apply. “Students often procrastinate looking for a summer job, because they’re getting ready for final exams and caught up in other activities,” Costa says. “But employers want their seasonal help to be hired, trained, and ready when summer starts.” Almost two-thirds (74%) expect to have finished their summer hiring by the end of May.

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