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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 28, 2006

Teens take their pick

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

Alara Lum, 17, arranges an eyewear display at the optometry office of Dr. Michael Wong. She works as a receptionist at the office four days a week. The job pays her the state minimum wage, but Alara says she appreciates the flexibility that comes with it.

JOAQUIN SIOPACK | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Photo illustration by Greg Taylor | The Honolulu Advertiser Photos by Bruce Asato and joaquin siopack | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Alara Lum cleans a refracting instrument at Dr. Michael Wong's optometry office. Her earnings are going into her college fund.

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Mike Young, Kalani High School's college and career counselor, remembers just a few years ago when the most motivated students had to fill out applications at every business in Kahala Mall and up and down Wai'alae Avenue for even a chance at landing a summer job.

But this year, recruiters have been visiting the high school in triple the numbers just since last spring, looking to hire students and new graduates for full- and part-time entry-level openings this summer.

"It wasn't that long ago that the only students who got jobs were the real aggressive ones," Young said. "Now if you want a job, you can get one. They have their choice, and they get real picky now. Most of the boys like to work in the surf shops. The girls like clothing. But not just any clothing. They like to work at Abercrombie & Fitch or Hollister."

As Hawai'i has posted the lowest unemployment rate in the nation for 24 straight months, high school students are enjoying a commanding position in this job market at least for entry-level, low-paying positions.

Hawai'i's private and public high schools graduate about 14,000 students every year while the workforce at the same time loses about 30,000 workers to retirement, relocation and other reasons, said Michael Rota, associate vice president for academic affairs for the University of Hawai'i's community college system, who also is a member of the state's Workforce Development Council and the O'ahu Workforce Investment Board.

"People are leaving the workforce at a faster rate than (replacements) are prepared to enter the workforce," Rota said. "Despite the strength of the economy, we're still a net exporter of people from the state. It's a consequence, between the gap in salaries and the cost of housing."

Only 31 percent of Island jobs pay a "living wage," defined as $40,000 to $45,000 or more, Rota said. "That means 69 percent of the jobs pay less than a living wage."

Nearly all jobs in Hawai'i that pay a living wage require training beyond high school, Rota said, including relatively high-paying construction positions.

In the first quarter of 2005, teenagers 14 to 18 earned the lowest pay of all age age groups $784 a month, according to statistics from the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.

They also were the age category with the fewest workers 14,144 and with the highest job turnover rate by far, 32 percent.

Why not leave a job if you know there are plenty of places happy to give you another one?

"They (young people) can afford to be choosy in this economy," said Signe Godfrey, a member of the state's Workforce Development Council, who also is president of Olsten Staffing Services. "In the workplace, if they don't like what's going on, they leave, and they don't care if it affects their work history."

"Welcome to the world of Generation Y," said Godfrey.

The continuing shortage of workers helped draw a record 206 recruiters to last week's WorkForce Job Fair at the Neal Blaisdell Center. Many said they would consider students who haven't even graduated from high school at salaries far better than Hawai'i's minimum wage of $6.75 an hour.

A'Lan Trotter, human resource manager for Old Navy, came to the Blaisdell willing to consider high school students for up to 30 "associate" jobs that start at $8 an hour.

Employers are also enticing ambitious employees with the promise of training and promotions.

"We have in-house, management training and we touch bases with (employees) every 30, 60, 90 days asking them for feedback on what they like, what they want to do," Trotter said.

Sanson Eligio, operations manager for Shokudo Japanese Restaurant and Bar, said that even high school students with no experience can be groomed for a variety of management positions, from human resources to payroll to restaurant manager.

"If the person has a passion, we'll develop them as far as they want to go," Eligio said. "Even with high school students, if they have the determination to work for us, we'll have the door open to go wherever they want to go."

Alara Lum, 17, just finished her junior year at Kalani High School and will continue working part time as a receptionist and office employee at the optometry office of Dr. Michael Wong, where she is paid minimum wage.

The money goes toward Alara's college fund, and she hopes to get another part-time job this summer to earn more cash for college.

"I'm very happy, because it's so flexible," she said. "But I'd like to get another job, so I can earn more."

Not all teens are convinced they will have an easy time getting work this summer. Windel Dayuha, 17, who will graduate from Farrington High School on Saturday, worries that her volunteer experience may not count for much when she looks for paying work.

Windel has volunteered at the Blood Bank of Hawai'i and at Kapi'olani Medical Center for Women & Children through AmeriCorps, a national community service organization. She also participated in the state Department of Health's underage, undercover tobacco-buying program.

"I'm looking for a job for the summer," Windel said, "but I mostly have a lot of volunteer experience. So I think it'll be a little hard, because I don't have a lot of real work experience where I get paid."

Her concerns are misplaced, according to Stephanie Silva, who helps Farrington students at the school's school-to-work center.

In previous years, Silva has had trouble filling her 25-slot job board with offers. This year, she's had the opposite problem: She doesn't have enough room for all the jobs.

"I've had to double several of them," Silva said. "Employers are definitely calling us looking for workers."

Chris Sousod, an 18-year-old graduating senior from Kalani, hopes that his paid summer internship in the Diet and Nutrition Department at Kapi'olani Medical Center for Women & Children helps him toward a possible career in medicine even if the job only pays minimum wage.

Sousod has been accepted at the University of Hawai'i for the fall as a freshman but is already looking ahead to possibly applying for medical school.

"The pay is minimum," Sousod said, "but I wanted to get an internship at a hospital, so I can see what it's like. I want to help people, and everybody tells me I should become a doctor."

Merial Park helps coordinate job recruiters coming to Kalani and has helped more students than ever about 60 get their work permits for this summer.

"Just four years ago, you felt so bad for them because there just weren't any jobs," Park said. "This year, there's lots of work. I'm really happy for these kids."

Children 16 and 17 years old need a work permit to enter the job market, said Pamela Martin, administrator for the Wage Standards Division at the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.

They are prohibited from working during school hours. There are no requirements on the number of hours they can work, and no parental signature is required for a work permit, Martin said.

The department last week began letting 16- and 17-year-old potential employees apply for work permits online at www .hawaii.gov/labor.

Work permit applications for 14- and 15-year-olds also are available online, but they still must visit a department office to obtain the permit by first providing a letter signed by their employer saying they already have a job, signed permission from their parents and proof of age, such as a birth certificate, passport or state identification card, said Martin.

Anyone who knowingly violates work-permit laws other than the minor would be guilty of a misdemeanor, Martin said.

In general, Martin said, children can work for their parents or at jobs such as selling newspapers without state permit. But children younger than 14 need a department variance to work in fields such as television commercials.

State law requires that children 14 and 15 be given 30-minute breaks for every five hours they work. They cannot work during school hours; cannot work more than three hours a day on any school day or more than 18 hours a week when school is in session. They cannot work more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week when school is not in session. They cannot work before 7 a.m. or after 7 p.m. (or before 6 a.m. or after 9 p.m. on any authorized school break day); and they cannot work six consecutive days.

No minor can work in hazardous occupations, Martin said.

No one younger than 18 can work in adult entertainment.

Reach Dan Nakaso at dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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