WASHINGTON -- Dwane Holloman plans to dedicate his summer to an American rite of passage: a teen job. The 17-year-old will operate amusement park rides at Hersheypark in Pennsylvania, near his home.
More of his peers could share his luck this year, as short-term job prospects improve alongside the broader labor market, which has added more than 200,000 jobs in each of the past four months.
Teen hiring posted the biggest gain in eight years this May, not counting for seasonal adjustments. If the nascent job recovery retains steam through the summer, it could bolster wallets and resumes for U.S. youth.
"There's pent-up demand in the economy for the teen worker," said Rick Cobb, executive vice president at employment consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas in Chicago. Though teen hiring increased in May, he said June through mid-July will give the full picture.
Sixteen-to-19-year-olds last month gained the most jobs for May since 2006, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data not adjusted for seasonal fluctuations. The group added 217,000 jobs, compared with 215,000 the prior year.
While the gain suggests early strength in the summer job market, the uptick in May hiring last year gave way to a subpar June and July. The total number of teens who landed summer work dropped by 3 percent from 2012, based on a Challenger, Gray & Christmas analysis.
Mr. Cobb said he expects hiring this year to be in line with 2013 levels. Last year, teens gained about 1.36 million summer jobs, up from 960,000 in 2010, based on the analysis.
Late spring job gains aren't the only indication that the labor market for teens is healthier. The jobless rate for 16- to 19-year-olds dropped to 19.2 percent last month from 24.1 percent a year earlier on a seasonally adjusted basis.
That compares with unemployment that had flat lined around 24 percent between early 2011 and mid-2013 for that age group, down from 27.3 percent in October 2010, the highest since records began in 1948.
If the seasonal job market turns around, it could help today's 16- to 19-year-olds become better prepared for the workforce. Teenagers during and just after 18-month recession that ended in June 2009 struggled to gain jobs, and many now lack the experience to land age-appropriate work, said Marlena Sessions, chief executive officer at the nonprofit Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County.
"Young people are waking up years after the Great Recession and saying, 'Hey, I've never had a job,' " Ms. Sessions said. "That first or first couple of summer jobs is pretty important."
Jasmine Waters knows what it's like to be shut out of the labor market by a lack of teenage work experience. Ms. Waters, 22, has applied to about 40 jobs over the past five to six months with little luck, she said.
"I just baby-sat a lot," said Ms. Waters, who lives in Arlington, Va. She was turned down for a bookstore job after the company decided to hire someone with an employment background, she said. Her lack of history "works against me."
About 5 percent of all workers hold multiple jobs, based on May Bureau of Labor Statistics data. About 5.6 percent of 20 to 24-year-olds had more than one position, the largest share of any age segment, while 4.3 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds have two jobs.
The slowly improving job market could also help coax back into the labor pool young people who have despaired of finding work.
Teen participation has been declining for decades as young people opt to take summer classes, volunteer or intern to prepare for college. The share of 16-to-19-year-olds holding a job or looking for one was 33.8 percent this May, down from more than 50 percent in the 1980s and 1990s, though slightly improved after hitting an all-time low of 32.9 percent in February.
The weak job market exacerbated the decline, and participation has plummeted 6.8 points just since May 2007. As of May, 833,000 teens were missing from the job search because of weak prospects, estimates Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.
"These are the ones who are out of the labor force because job opportunities are weak," Ms. Shierholz said. "That suggests that when job opportunities strengthen, they will come back in."