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Young struggle to find work in Jackson County

Rogue Community College student Alejandro Ortega is back in the job market.

The 19-year-old Phoenix High School graduate managed to squeeze in 10-hour shifts during the seasonal rush at Harry & David's kitchen after his classes ended. But once the holidays were over, so was his job.

"It's hard to focus on school and focus on a job," said Ortega, who is working toward a criminology or pre-law degree. "I've applied to Oak Tree, Panda Express and some other places, but it's kind of hard right now."

Figures compiled from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2010-2012 American Community Survey show that 1 in 3 Jackson County 16-to-19-year-olds desiring work are unemployed. For those 21 to 22, the local rate is 1 in 5, and for 22-to-24-year-olds, it is about 1 in 6.

Those figures mirror youth unemployment statewide, which is surprising, given unemployment as a whole is higher in Southern Oregon, said Josh Lehner, an economist with the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis in Portland.

"Granted, those figures are high, but it's not as disproportionate as the overall figures would indicate," Lehner said.

Sitting outside the Higher Education Center in downtown Medford recently, Ortega said he hoped to land a part-time job soon to complement his morning class schedule during spring term.

"I had a full-time job before," he said. "I was going to school full time and then working 10 hours at Harry and David in the bakery at night. I was taking Writing 121, Psychology 201 and Public Speaking 111; I passed them all with straight A's."

There are other young people looking for work now, and before long, college students will return to town looking for summer employment.

Audryeonna Coplen, a 21-year-old Medford resident, has pursued a health care internship through The Job Council in preparation for a Certified Nursing Assistant training program with Pacific Health Care in Central Point.

Previously, Coplen worked at McDonald's and Carl's Jr., and did customer-service work at Harry & David.

"I've always wanted to be involved with health care since I was little," she said. "The four-week internship helped me get my resume prepared and more skills to do the job. I eventually want to be a registered nurse, but short-term, my goal is to be (a licensed practical nurse)."

Fast-food restaurants, once synonymous with young workers, are becoming the domain of an older demographic.

"When the Legislature mandated a higher minimum wage, it brought the middle class closer to the lower class," said Sandra Cummings, Wendy's operations director for Southern Oregon and Northern California. "The entry-level jobs became wage-earning jobs for people who had gone through a rough time and had to start over."

The exception is in Ashland, where about half the staff goes to school at nearby Southern Oregon University.

Didi Tacdol, who manages the Arby's restaurant on Stewart Avenue, said the number of high school-aged applicants has declined during the past five years.

"I think working in fast-food teaches a lot of life skills that are useful in any job," Tacdol said. "I just don't see as much motivation out there and people with push and drive as, say, five, six or seven years ago. I just don't think parents are making their kids work anymore."

There seems to be no lack of applicants when it comes to coffee kiosks, however.

Enthusiasm counts when seeking any job, and nowhere is it more advantageous than at Dutch Bros., the youthful caffeine dispensary. Landing a Dutch Bros. drive-thru job can be a 1-in-100 proposition, but ambitious applicants can improve their odds.

"Bring your resume to the exact location you want to work between 4:45 (a.m.) and noon," said Mason Smith, who manages the Hillcrest location in Grants Pass. "The earlier the better, because they have more time to talk."

The Southern Oregon University sophomore has been working for Dutch Bros. since he was 17 and aspires to become a franchisee when he finishes school.

"We get about 10 applications a day and hire once every few months at each location," Smith said. "Some maybe more, and some less."

While some college students are lining up summer internships, most will hit the employment lines come June, said Nikki Jones of Express Employment.

"Sometimes they will call ahead and we'll try to have something lined up," Jones said. "The fortunate part is that we have some clients who have summer slots."

One manufacturer's requirement, she said, is for the summer employees either to be in college or headed to college the next fall.

On one hand, Cascade Christian High School graduate Brandon Williams finds himself in a good position to get a head start for summer employment. On the other, he is playing a waiting game.

Williams wraps up his freshman year at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., next month and hopes to land a position at Costco or a mill before students on a quarter system in the Northwest get out of school. However, he plans to transfer to the University of Oregon next fall, and won't know for a few more days whether he's been accepted.

"I'm not sure where else I will apply and I'm thinking about my own thing, selling chicken," he said.

College students with an eye on a career path or graduate school don't necessarily find the opportunities they seek in the Rogue Valley.

Wyatt Sosey, a Medford resident studying accounting in Southern California, said he took an internship with Big 4 accounting firm Deloitte in San Jose.

"I don't think there are too many resume-building jobs that I could have in Southern Oregon," Sosey said. "I needed a better launching pad for my future, which is in a bigger city."

Permanent positions that pay well — outside technical, medical or other fields requiring years of schooling — are relatively scarce in the Rogue Valley.

Tim Gettman's search for a permanent job led him to Boise, Idaho, where he begins work at the West Boise water treatment plant this week.

Gettman, 21, took a temporary position with the city of Medford during summer 2011, and then began a series of short-term training roles at the wastewater reclamation plant. He earned certification, but with no available openings, he had to cast a wider net.

"The program I was in was designed to prepare people when someone left," Gettman said. "But me getting employed somewhere else still counts as a success for the program."

His starting salary at the new job is just under $40,000.

"Once you get your certification, it's a lot easier to find a job," he said. "Not that many people want to do it, because of the stigma of working with poop."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregMTBusiness, friend him on Facebook and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/Economic Edge.

Young struggle to find work in Jackson County