Ryan Semenuk rode his bike up and down the streets of his Toronto neighbourhood, stopping at every business he thought might give him a job.
He handed out "tons, tons" of résumés, but the 18-year-old Grade 12 student didn't get any replies.
"I was really persistent and aggressive and all that, but it just didn't work out," he says. "I was riding to every store possible."
Finally, Mr. Semenuk attended a job fair, where he landed work this summer flipping burgers at Lick's, a fast-food restaurant. But the competition was tough, he says, as people who appeared much older and more experienced were at the same job fair vying for the opening.
"There's a lot of people there that … look very intelligent and intimidating, and you're all sitting in the same room," he says. "It's very hard, because you think that the people around are better than you."
Summer employment has been customary for generations of high-school teens. But these days, because of a lacklustre economy and a preference among employers for more mature and experienced staff, many high-school students are finding themselves displaced by university- and college-aged students in temporary, entry-level retail and hospitality jobs traditionally occupied by younger teens.
While some high-school students are responding by giving up on the job hunt altogether, others are finding alternative ways, such as volunteer work or travel, to enrich their lives and boost their CVs.
"There's a crisis right now in youth unemployment," says Nancy Schaefer, president of Toronto-based Youth Employment Services. "Because there's such a high rate of unemployment for all youth in general, it always trickles down and those who are most affected are those who don't have skills and experience, so that's [where]the high-school kids come in."
Even though the employment rate for young people aged 15 to 24 edged up 3.1 percentage points to 59.2 per cent in May from a year earlier, it's still well below the 63.6 per cent in 2008 when youth employment was particularly strong, according to Statistics Canada.
Ms. Schaefer warned that joblessness among current high-school students could have significant long-term effects.
"It will seriously impact them," she says, noting that research has shown "when you experience bouts of unemployment when you're young, it will affect your long-term career and the amount of money you're going to make over your lifetime."
To avoid having to train new workers year after year, employers tend to prefer hiring the same students each summer, says Qazi Hasan, manager of employment services at Toronto's WoodGreen Community Services.
That means many university- and college-aged students, who aren't finding higher skilled and more lucrative work, are likely returning to the same summer jobs they held in high school - with a significant advantage over younger students who are only now entering the labour market.
Taylor Quinn, 17, says he isn't letting the tough job climate hold him back. Instead of working this summer, the Vancouver teen is travelling to Kenya with Toronto-based charities Free the Children and Me to We to help build a school and provide clean water for impoverished children.
"I think it will change my perspective on life," he says, adding he expects the experience will also enhance his résumé for future job hunting. "When you get a résumé that jumps out at you … and it's full of amazing things, it makes you go, 'Wow, I want to meet this person. This person sounds really interesting.' It really helps separate yourself and gives you that edge."
To help fund his trip, Mr. Quinn has saved up from the after-school jobs he's held over the past three years, including ones as a grocery clerk and a basketball referee. But he says not all his peers have the same work ethic.
"I have a lot of friends who I just shake my head [at] because they're not working all summer and they're just kind of hanging out at the mall and playing sports all summer and whatnot," he says. "A lot of people my age, they don't have the mentality. … They think, 'Oh I'm in high school now, I'll be working. I'm still a kid, I can work when I get out of school.' "
Marcel Girouard, 17, a new high-school graduate from St. Albert, Alta., also hopes to find more fulfilling work volunteering with the charity Canada World Youth in Nicaragua than at an entry-level job at home.
"I'm not being paid or anything, but it just seems more worth it," he says. "A job compared to this is quite different, right? But I'd say it's easier to get into Canada World Youth than it is to get a summer job."
At Canada World Youth headquarters in Montreal, communications director Myriam Levert says the tough labour market may, in part, be what's driving a growing interest among younger students for the organization's international program. While the overall number of applicants is lower this year compared with last year, the ratio of eager younger teens to university-aged students is noticeably higher, she says.
Other high-school students, however, are too discouraged to bother trying, says Trevor Robinson, 17, of Toronto.
"I think a lot of people wanted jobs but just didn't get them," he says. "And I think a lot of people don't want to go through the trouble. … They can just rely on their parents' income. It's not really a big deal. I guess I could [rely on parents]too but I like the idea of making my own money."
Mr. Robinson says he applied for about 30 jobs last fall before securing work at a Home Hardware store. Not eager to go through that process again, he's happy to stick with the same job for the summer, even though he wishes he could get more working hours than his typical 30 a week.
His employer, dealer-owner Malcolm Firkser, says he prefers hiring more mature students, since high-school workers tend to be less flexible.
Younger teens want "to go to the cottage for the summer to hang out with friends, whereas the university students are a little bit more hungry," he says.
That's not to say the younger ones aren't eager to work, however.
"Kids aren't lazy," Ms. Schaefer says. "This is a myth that every older generation applies to the younger one."