Is the teen-age unemployment situation getting better, or isn't it? The latest Labor Department statistics suggest that it is - and that the improvement is particularly strong among black teens. Long hovering at close to 50 percent, black-teen unemployment dropped a full 10 percent, to 34.3 percent between May and June. And unemployment among teens in general fell 6 percent over the last year, to 17.6 percent.
But analysts disagree on the significance and lasting power of the drop.
Some people who work to find jobs for economically disadvantaged black teens in the nation's major cities say they see no evidence as yet of any improvement. Although some say more companies are making available temporary summer jobs to counter cutbacks in federal jobs programs, they report that the pool of applicants is as large as ever, if not growing.
What do black teen-agers themselves think of the situation?
Eighteen-year-old Tammie Smith, who had a job last summer and currently sells lapel buttons at the minimum wage to downtown Chicagoans as part of a tourism campaign, says things are better: ''I think more teen-agers are working this summer than last, and most of my friends now have permanent jobs.''
But a block away Jackie Neal, who is the same age and also selling buttons, is worried that she will not be able to sell enough to keep what is her first summer job. And she says very few of her friends have been able to get any job.
Analysts at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) cite the robustness of the nation's economic recovery in recent months as a key factor in the improved unemployment statistics. A more ''subtle'' trend over the long term, adds BLS economist Richard Devans, is the generally smaller number of teens coming into the labor force, as the last of the baby-boom youngsters move into their 20s.
''I'm encouraged by the statistics, and I certainly hope they continue to improve,'' says James McGhee, research director at the National Urban League. ''The best thing that could happen for black teens is the general betterment of business conditions and economic growth.'' However, he says the Reagan administration is reaching too far in trying to take credit for the gains, since unemployment levels are now only back to what they were about four years ago.
''It's like taking credit for fixing something that wasn't broken in the first place,'' he says.
''What's happened,'' says Malcolm S. Cohen, director of the University of Michigan's Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations, ''is that the number of jobs being created has significantly increased, so the demand (for teens) is up. ... And over the last few years, the number of young people entering the labor force has been essentially coming to a halt.''
But some analysts dispute the widely held notion that changing demographics will largely solve the youth unemployment problem.
''It will help, but the situation has been getting worse for so long,'' says Paul Barton, director of the National Institute for Work and Learning, a Washington-based policy research group. As he sees it, the competition for service jobs - increasingly the only kind available in large urban areas - may well increase as more women enter the labor force and older workers stay on longer.
University of Pennsylvania economist Michael Wachter says it is vital to remember that high youth-unemployment rates refer only to those looking for jobs who are actually in the labor force. ''Most young people are in school,'' he notes. But Mr. Barton suggests that if current trends continue, more in-school teens will be hunting for employment (officially defined as at least one hour of paid work a week), and that should step up the competition.
''We'd be delighted if the statistics were accurate, but we have a sense of a much more serious situation - not a better one,'' says Mark Mroz, spokesman for the Mayor's Office of Employment of Training in Chicago. He estimates that 300, 000 economically disadvantaged Chicagoans between ages 14 and 21 are eligible for jobs supported by the federal Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA). Even with an emergency appropriation passed by Congress recently to counteract budget cuts , Chicago will be able to help only about 30,000, or 10 percent of the total, he says. He notes that there have been long lines every day at employment centers for most of the last three months, and that, aware of the competition, most waiting are well dressed and well behaved. ''We've been very impressed.''
Maxine Bailey, director of Jobs for Youth in New York City, an organization that places economically disadvantaged young people in unsubsidized entry-level jobs with small- and medium-size firms, says if anything there has been an increase in applicants over the last year. Although the overall number of teens seeking work may be declining, she says, the number of black and Hispanic teens is expected to increase.
In a black neighborhood in Minneapolis, Duke Hamilton, director of a chapter of the Opportunities Industrialization Centers of America, says that he, too, has noticed no falloff in applicants for available jobs. And he notes that local recreation centers, another ''barometer'' of opportunities available, are ''overflowing'' with local black youth. The one improvement he says he does notice is a growing number of companies interested in providing jobs. ''Those with a social conscience have been recognizing they must do more,'' he says.
''We do have more companies participating this year than last - small businesses, particularly - but the number of jobs (offered) remains about the same,'' says Tyrone Farris, director of a summer-jobs program here led by Chicago United, a volunteer business group that annually recruits among Chicago businesses for jobs for inner-city youths.
And Nathan Weber, a research associate of the New York-based Conference Board who recently surveyed the private-sector's hiring plans in 14 major cities, confirms that local businesses are offering more jobs this summer than last.