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Washington ranks high in a new study looking into teen unemployment.

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Teen Unemployment Rate

1 - Dist. of Columbia - 48.9%
2 - Georgia - 36.8%
3 - Washington - 34.5%
4 - Nevada - 34.5%
5 - California - 34.1%
6 - North Carolina - 32.2%
7 - Idaho - 31.8%
8 - Mississippi - 30.6%
9 - South Carolina - 30.0%
10 - Kentucky - 29.9%

In the stack of 300 applications that land on Jack Busch’s desk at the Spokane Parks aquatic department each spring, usually just a handful come from people older than 21 with actual lifeguard training.

The rest, he says, are teenagers looking for their first job. Or at least they were.

In recent years, Busch has seen a sharp shift in that stack of applications. This year, more than a third of them were from people older than 21 with the experience he was looking for.

It’s the story of a tough economy and a competitive job market, but it’s unfolding at especially high rates in Washington, according to new research.

Data from the Employment Policies Institute, a research group dedicated to studying entry-level employment issues, indicate that Washington has the third-highest teenage unemployment in the country.

Lagging behind just Washington, D.C., and Georgia, Washington’s rate is 34.5 percent.

The study analyzed nationwide census data to find the 25 states with the highest average teen unemployment rates in the last year. The list also included Idaho — sixth-highest with 31.8 percent — Oregon, Montana and Colorado. All 25 states had higher rates than the national average of 24.2 percent.

Arum Kone, a state labor economist, says he doesn’t know why Washington’s rate is higher than the national average. The state doesn’t keep its own unemployment numbers for certain demographics, he says. Instead they rely on national averages. “Nationally, the unemployment rates for people [16-25] are much higher than they have been historically,” Kone says. “The level of employment in areas that teens typically work — which are food, accommodations and retail — really have been impacted by the recession.”

Kone says one hope for teenagers in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene is tourism, an industry that’s rebounding even as the national economy continues to crawl.

Heidi Peterson, youth services manager for the Next Generation Zone, a teen-specific affiliate of Washington’s unemployment office that serves Spokane County, says the job market for teenagers is more competitive but not hopeless, especially in Spokane.

“We’re a small enough community that businesses also try to look out for and support the youth,” she says. “But when they’re not able to hire as many people, it becomes more and more difficult.”

Busch, who is the program supervisor for marketing and aquatics at Spokane Parks, hires about 160 people for temporary jobs each summer — a fraction of the total 700 or so employees that the parks department hires. He and other employers in Spokane may be seeing heartier applicant pools than ever before, but for those teenagers looking for work, like the 150 or so the aquatics department rejected this year, it can mean more than just a postponed paycheck.

“One of our biggest fears is that young people aren’t getting work experience that in the long term keeps them from moving forward,” Kone says.

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