UNIVERSITY PARK -- The changing relationship between teenagers and the mall has become such a hot topic that it has entered the realm of academia.
University researchers have studied the habits of teens, while masters and doctoral students have written dissertations about teenagers hanging out at the mall as social space. The media also has covered the evolution of attitudes towards teens at the mall with the increase in crimes around certain malls.
The change has been documented -- at least in the job market. In 1990, there were about 3 million retail jobs for 16- to 19-year-olds, but it's closer to 1 million today, according to the U.S. Labor Department. With the rise in unemployment, retailers have been able to target older workers for what have been traditionally teenage jobs. And more savvy teenagers have been using their high school years to explore careers through internships and volunteer work with hospitals, doctor's offices, veterinarians and even in public-sector work, such as with police departments.
Some teens eschew the mall -- and other centers of social activity -- in favor of the technology that keeps them connected.
So will a shiny new mall, with its promise of 2,000 new jobs and such retailers as the Apple Store, bring back retail's luster to teenagers?
In less than three weeks, the Mall at University Town Center will be swarmed with customers, with new stores in the mall targeting every demographic of shopper, from the youngest to the eldest and every demographic in between.
What role teenagers play in the regional attraction will be key to the mall's future.
The backbone of a mall
Teenagers and young adults have long been integral to a mall's economic engine. Not only do they have disposable income to spend at the mall, but they also typically earn a chunk of that income working for mall retailers.
Mall jobs give teens an opportunity to learn basic work skills and in return, retailers get cheap labor, typically paying teens minimum wage. But the recent recession helped change some of that as unemployed adults began taking part-time work to help make ends meet.
Today, more U.S. adults are working part-time than ever before as the job market continues to recover.
A number of retailers and restaurants at the new mall have been working with officials at Manatee Technical Institute to fill open positions, said MTI officials. Companies including Crate and Barrel, Victoria's Secret, Ann Taylor Loft, Kona Grill and The Cheesecake Factory have all been in touch to try to find students, said Martha Meyers, a career counselor in business and industry services at MTI said.
"It's been really good for so many of our students," she said. Those students, many of whom who are no longer teens, gain valuable experience as they transition into new careers or begin their careers as young adults.
Meyers estimates restaurants have taken at least 15 students from the school's culinary program. That doesn't include students who have previously completed the program. She said most of the students currently getting jobs there began courses in August.
Willie Brown, a 25-year-old full-time student in the culinary program, will work as a prep cook for Kona Grill on a part-time basis while he continues his courses. Brown said it important for him to keep increasing his skills, both in the classroom and with on-the-job experience.
"This puts my foot in the door," Brown said.
MTI students Thomas Yannotti and Simon Mayo agreed with Brown. Both Yannotti, 23, and Mayo, 34, said they had difficulty finding part-time jobs that fit around their school hours before the mall opportunities came about.
"It's helping us put money in our pockets and it's helping us get experience," Yannotti said.
Mayo joked the money from the job will allow him to keep putting gas in the car so he can continue his studies at MTI.
While flexibility is essential to the students, added pay from the part-time job can also be the deciding factor in allowing them to stay in school.
Getting a foot in the door
Hiring teens can also be a valuable to employers, while giving the newest members of the workforce experience, said Sally Hill, communications director for CareerSource Suncoast.
"The jobs at the mall are certainly an opportunity for the youth," she said. "Even if it's not the job you dream of, working is better than not working."
CareerSource Suncoast has a dedicated team that specifically targets the youth workforce, providing a number of different avenues and opportunities for those between the ages of 16 and 21. It also has a special hiring page dedicated specifically to jobs at the new mall.
Members of the youth team help teenagers learn skills that will allow them enter the workforce and begin a path toward a career, Hill said.
The new job opportunities at the mall, mostly in retail, will give students experiences and skills that can be transferred to a number of other fields.
Working in retail and restaurants provides students with what Meyers called "soft skills" -- such as punctuality, presentation, team work and conflict resolution -- that translate into any other job field.
The mall's opening may even spark a new program at MTI, Meyers said. Officials are looking into a retail program that would specifically aim at helping students move from the part-time retail jobs of folding clothes and ringing up sales to management positions. With the wealth of stores coming to the mall, that type of program could be beneficial.
"It would be a more in-depth program and would really put students on a track to move into management," Meyers said.
For retailers, young employees are not just a cheap resource. They are often energetic, quick to pick up advances in technology and willing to work in team environments, Hill said.
"They bring a different perspective," she said.
Teens as consumers
Stores that target teenaged consumers, often like to have teenagers who can connect with others working in those stores.
The Mall at UTC boasts a number of retailers aimed the teen-consumer demographic, including American Eagle Outfitters, Claire's, Express, Forever 21, H&M, MAC, Pacific Sunwear, Sephora and Victoria's Secret.
But it's been a balancing act in the past decade.
Malls want to attract teenagers who have money to spend. Often, that means teens who drag their parents along.
Whether window shopping or hanging in the food court, malls have long been the place for teenagers to congregate and waste time without their parents, earning a contingent of regulars the "mall rats" moniker.
That was OK until trouble started among bored teenagers. Fights and bad behavior deterred more well-heeled shoppers from going to malls full of teenagers roaming the concourse. So in the past decade or so, malls across the country have been implementing new policies -- such as parental escorts -- designed to restrict teenagers on weekend nights.
Malls owners and managers often cite loss prevention, decreased theft and fewer unsupervised gatherings that could turn into potential fights or other issues disrupting the shopping in the mall.
The Mall at University Town Center won't have a teen policy, according to information provided from Taubman's corporate offices.
Typical teen policies differ from site to site, but for the most part, teens under the age of 18 cannot be in the malls unsupervised at certain hours on Fridays and Saturdays. Most of the restrictions on teens have taken place after a mall has experienced some sort of trouble with teen behavior.
Officials from Westfield's Southgate Mall and Sarasota Square Mall would not comment about policies the malls may have concerning teenagers.
The Mall of America, the largest shopping mall in the United States, requires anyone under the age of 16 in the mall past 4 p.m. on Friday or Saturday to be accompanied by an adult 21 or older, according to the mall's site. One adult can supervise up to 10 children.
Mall of America employees are allowed to ask for the IDs of anyone who looks to be under the age of 21 during those time frames, according to the site. Those policies were implemented after a large group of teens began fighting in the mall, even throwing chairs in the food court. Triple Five Group owns Mall of America.
Teens in Norfolk, Va. picketed McArthur Center, a former Taubman Mall, after it implemented teen policies in 2009. Some of the stores within the mall refused to follow the teen policies, preferring to cater to teen consumers, meaning the policy was largely enforced only in the mall's common areas, according to reports from the Virginian Pilot.
But such policies may not be necessary as the academic research shows the number of "mall rats" are now dwindling as large number of teenagers who once spent their free time just hanging out in the mall, but not spending money, are now hanging out with their friends through technology, rather than in public spaces.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.