Teens to the rescue
High school workers step into the gap as employers struggle to fill jobs
WASHINGTON — 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 recession and customer demand intensifies, high school-age kids are filling jobs that older workers can’t — or won’t.
The result is that teens willing to bus restaurant tables or serve as waterpark lifeguards are commanding $15, $17 or more an hour, plus bonuses in some instances, or money to help pay for school classes. The trend marks a shift from the period after the 2007-09 Great Recession, when older workers often took such jobs and teens were sometimes squeezed out.
The time, an acute labor shortage, especially at restaurants, and tourism and entertainment businesses, has made teenage workers highly popular again.
“We’re very thankful they are here,’’ says Akash Kapoor, CEO of Curry Up Now. Fifty teenagers are working this summer at his five San Francisco-area Indian street food restaurants, up from only about a dozen last year. “We may not be open if they weren’t here. We need bodies.”
The proportion of Americans ages 16-19 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 dipped to 31.9% in June, the Labor Department reported Friday it is still higher than before the pandemic devastated the economy last spring.
At the Cattivella Italian restaurant in Denver, for instance, Harry Hittle, 16, is earning up to $22.50 an hour, including tips, from his job clearing restaurant tables. He’s used the windfall 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,” says Mathieu Stevenson, CEO of Snagajob, an online job site for hourly work.
Consider the findings of 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. The figure fell especially steeply during the Great Recession. The eruption of coronavirus produced a new low: Only 26.3% of teens had jobs last summer.
The long-term drop in teen employment has reflected both broad economic shifts and personal choice. 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 do remain have been increasingly likely to be taken by older workers, many of them foreign born.
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 applications for college.
This summer, things are rather different. After collapsing last spring, the economy has rebounded much faster than expected. Restaurants, bars, retail shops and amusement parks have been overwhelmed by pent-up demand from consumers.
Now, those businesses are scrambling to find enough employees.