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As employers struggle to fill jobs, teens come to their rescue

Pedestrians walk past a sign advertising jobs at a boutique.
Pedestrians walk past a sign inviting people to apply for jobs at a shop in Boston this week. As the U.S. economy rebounds from the pandemic recession, teenagers are filling jobs that older workers either can’t or won’t.
(Steven Senne / Associated Press)

The owners of restaurants, amusement parks and retail shops, many of them desperate for workers, are sounding an unusual note of gratitude this summer: Thank goodness for teenagers.

As the U.S. economy bounds back with unexpected speed from the pandemic-induced recession and as customer demand intensifies, high-school-age kids are filling jobs that older workers can’t — or won’t.

The result is that teens who are willing to bus restaurant tables or serve as water-park lifeguards are commanding $15, $17 or more per hour, plus bonuses in some instances or money to help pay for school. The trend marks a shift from the period after the Great Recession of 2007-09, when older workers often took such jobs and teens were sometimes squeezed out.

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This time an acute shortage of job applicants, especially at restaurants, tourism and entertainment businesses, has made teenage workers highly popular again.

Employers in California and the U.S. are scrambling to fill jobs as the dust from the pandemic begins to settle. Just don’t call it a labor shortage.

“We’re very thankful they are here,” said Akash Kapoor, chief executive of Curry Up Now. Fifty teenagers are working this summer at his five San Francisco Bay Area Indian street food restaurants, up from about a dozen last year. “We may not be open if they weren’t here. We need bodies.”

The proportion of Americans ages 16 to 19 who are working is higher than it’s been in years. In May, 33.2% of them had jobs, the highest such percentage since 2008. Though the figure slipped to 31.9% in June, the Labor Department reported, that is still higher than it was before the pandemic devastated the economy in spring of last year.

At the Cattivella Italian restaurant in Denver, 16-year-old Harry Hittle is earning up to $22.50 an hour, including tips, from his job clearing tables. He has used the money to buy gas and insurance for his car and has splurged on a road bike and an electric guitar.

“There’s never been a better time to apply for a job if you’re a teen,” said Mathieu Stevenson, CEO of Snagajob, an online job site for hourly work.

Consider the findings of Neeta Fogg, Paul Harrington and Ishwar Khatiwada, researchers at Drexel University’s Center for Labor Markets and Policy who issue an annual forecast for the teenage summer job market. This year, they predict, will be the best summer for teenage lifeguards, ice cream scoopers and sales clerks since 2008; 31.5% of 16- to 19-year-olds will have jobs.

Teenage employment had been on a long slide, leading many analysts to lament the end of summertime jobs that gave teens work experience and a chance to mingle with colleagues and customers from varying backgrounds.

In August 1978, 50% of teenagers were working, according to the U.S. Labor Department. Their employment rate hasn’t been that high since. The figure began a long slide in 2000 and fell especially steeply during the Great Recession. The eruption of the coronavirus produced a new low: Only 26.3% of teens had jobs last summer, according to the Drexel researchers.

The long-term drop in teen employment has reflected both broad economic shifts and personal choices. The U.S. economy includes fewer low-skill, entry-level jobs — ready-made for teens — than it did in the 1970s and 1980s. And such jobs that remain have been increasingly likely to go to older workers, many of them born outside the United States.

In addition, teens from affluent families, eager to secure admission to top universities, have for years chosen summer academic programs over jobs or have pursued ambitious volunteer work in hopes of distinguishing their college applications. Others have spent their summers playing competitive sports.

This summer, things are rather different. After collapsing last spring, the economy has rebounded much faster than expected. Restaurants, bars, shops and amusement parks have been overwhelmed by pent-up demand from consumers who had mostly hunkered down for a year or more.

Those businesses need employees to handle the influx and are scrambling to find enough. The COVID-19 vaccine rollout was just ramping up in April and May, when employers typically start hiring for summer. Some of these businesses delayed their hiring decisions, unsure when pandemic restrictions would lift.

Foreign workers brought in on J-1 work-and-study visas typically filled many such summer jobs. But last year, then-President Trump suspended those visas as a pandemic precaution. The number of U.S.-issued J-1 visas tumbled 69% in fiscal year 2020 — to 108,510, down from 353,279 the year before.

In past years, for example, people visiting the U.S. on visas filled 180 summer jobs at Big Kahuna’s water park in Destin, Fla. Last year, there were just three. This year, eight. Desperate to attract local teens, Big Kahuna’s, which is owned by Boomers Parks, is now paying $12 an hour, up from less than $10 an hour in past years.

Compounding the labor squeeze, many older Americans have been slow to respond to a record number of job openings. Some have lingering health concerns or trouble arranging or affording child care at a time when schools are still transitioning from remote to in-person learning. Other adults may have been discouraged from seeking work because of generous federal unemployment benefits, though many states have dropped these benefits, which will end nationwide Sept. 6.

So businesses are offering signing bonuses and whatever else they can to hire teens in a hurry.

Wendy’s, which relies on teens to salt fries and ring up orders, added a way for applicants to apply for a job through their smartphones. Applicants are screened using artificial intelligence, which gets them to an interview faster than if they uploaded a resume. The idea is to hire them before another employer can.

“Speed is critical,” said Randy Pianin, CEO of JAE Restaurant Group, a franchisee that owns 220 Wendy’s locations. As a perk, Pianin said, JAE is offering workers a way to get some of their pay the day after they earn it instead of having to wait two weeks for a paycheck.

Boomers Parks has raised pay at the eight amusement parks it owns and is offering bonuses of up to $50 a week for some teen workers who stay through the summer, CEO Tim Murphy said. With fewer people seemingly willing to take the jobs, Murphy said, competition for workers is fierce.

At its Sahara Sam’s water park in West Berlin, N.J., the company lowered its minimum working age to 15 from 16 to try to recruit a larger pool of candidates.

Johnathon Miller thought he would need to wait until August, when he turns 16, to start working. But when he heard about a lowered age limit at Sahara Sam’s, he applied — and got the job. He will soon be a lifeguard, watching over the lazy river for $15 an hour, a couple of bucks more an hour than Sahara Sam’s used to pay.

The restaurant chain Curry Up Now pays $2 an hour above the minimum wage, which is $15 or more an hour, depending on the Bay Area location. The chain is also offering a fund for teens to pay for classes or books, as well as free Zoom classes on how to manage money.

Kapoor concedes that young hires require restaurant training and might not stick around long. But there are advantages to having teens on staff. They are typically inclined to persuade their friends to work or eat there, giving Curry Up Now a stream of future workers and customers. And they have updated the restaurant’s music, adding more songs from the `1980s and ‘90s as well as tunes from India and the Middle East.

All that said, the revival of teen employment might not last. The pre-pandemic trend toward fewer young workers at restaurants and entertainment venues could reassert itself if the economy’s labor crunch is resolved.

Still, Harrington, director of Drexel’s labor markets center, noted that “employers have moved down the labor queue as the labor supply of adults has become more constrained.”

If the economic recovery continues to reduce unemployment, and if federal policymakers continue to restrict the influx of foreign workers, “then the chances for sustained growth in teen employment rates are good,” Harrington said.


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