Teen employment jumps as businesses recover from pandemic recession


Owners of restaurants, amusement parks and retail stores, many of whom are in desperate need of workers, issue an unusual note of gratitude this summer:

Thank goodness for the teenagers.

As the US economy shrinks at an unexpectedly pandemic recession speed and customer demand escalates, school-aged children are taking jobs that older workers can’t – or don’t want.

The result is that teens who are willing to take the bus from restaurant tables or serve as lifeguards at a water park are ordering $ 15, $ 17 or more an hour, plus bonuses in some cases or cash. to help pay for school lessons. The trend marks a shift from the period following the Great Recession of 2007-2009, when older workers often held such jobs and teenagers were sometimes squeezed out.

This time around, an acute labor shortage, especially in restaurants, tourism and entertainment businesses, made teenage workers very popular.

“We are very grateful that they are here,” said Akash Kapoor, CEO of Curry Up Now. Fifty teens are working at its five San Francisco-area Indian street food restaurants this summer, up from just a dozen last year. “We might not be open if they weren’t there. We need the body.

The proportion of Americans aged 16 to 19 who are working is higher than it has been in years: in May, 33.2% of them were employed, the highest percentage since 2008 Although the figure fell to 31.9% in June, the Labor Department reported. Friday is even higher than before the pandemic devastated the economy last spring.

At Italian restaurant Cattivella in Denver, for example, Harry Hittle, 16, earns up to $ 22.50 an hour, including tips, from his job cleaning restaurant tables. He used the windfall to buy gas and insurance for his car and splurged on a road bike and electric guitar.

“There’s never been a better time to apply for a job if you’re a teenager,” says 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 publish annual forecasts for the summer job market for teenagers. This year, they predict, will be the best summer for teenage lifeguards, ice cream scoops and vendors since 2008; 31.5% of 16-19 year olds will have a job.

Teen employment was on a long slide, leading many analysts to bemoan the end of summer jobs that offered teens work experience and a chance to mingle with colleagues and clients from diverse backgrounds.

In August 1978, 50% of teens were working, according to the US Department of Labor. Their employment rate has not been so high since. The figure began a long slide in 2000 and fell particularly sharply during the Great Recession. The coronavirus rash has produced a new low: only 26.3% of teens had a job last summer, according to Drexel researchers.

The long-term decline in adolescent employment reflects both broad economic changes and personal choices. The US economy has fewer entry-level low-skilled jobs – out-of-the-box for teens – than in the 1970s and 1980s. And the jobs that remain are increasingly likely to be filled by older workers, many of whom were born abroad.

Additionally, teens from affluent families, eager to gain admission to top universities, for years chose summer college programs over jobs or pursued ambitious volunteer work in the hope of distinguishing their applicants. at University. Others spent their summers playing competitive sports.

This summer, things are quite different. After collapsing last spring, the economy rebounded much faster than expected. Restaurants, bars, retail stores and amusement parks were overwhelmed by pent-up demand from consumers who had mostly been squatting for a year or more.

Now these companies need employees to handle the influx and are scrambling to find enough. The vaccine rollout was only beginning in April and May, when employers typically start hiring for the summer. Some of these companies delayed their hiring decisions, unsure if or when the economy would fully reopen.

Foreign workers, brought in on J-1 work-study visas, typically held many of these summer jobs. But President Donald Trump suspended those visas as a precaution against coronaviruses, and the number of J-1 visas issued by the United States fell 69% in fiscal 2020 – to 108,510, from 353 279 the previous year.

In recent years, for example, foreigners visiting the United States on visas have held 180 summer jobs at Big Kahuna Water Park in Destin, Florida. Last year there were only three. This year, eight. Desperate to attract local teens, Big Kahuna’s, which is owned by Boomers Parks, now pays $ 12 an hour, down from less than $ 10 an hour in previous years.

Compounding the labor shortage, many older Americans were slow to respond to a record number of job offers. Some have lingering health issues or difficulty arranging or paying for child care at a time when schools are shifting from distance learning to in-person learning. Other adults may have been discouraged from looking for work because of generous federal unemployment benefits, although many states have abandoned those benefits, and they will end nationally on September 6.

So companies are offering signing bonuses and whatever they can to hire teenagers quickly.

Wendy’s, which relies on teens to make savory fries and place orders, added a way for applicants to apply for jobs through their smartphones. Candidates are screened using artificial intelligence, which gets them to an interview faster than if they uploaded a CV. The idea is to hire them before another employer can.

“Speed ​​is everything,” said Randy Pianin, CEO of JAE Restaurant Group, a franchisee with 220 Wendy’s locations. As a perk, JAE offers workers a way to recoup part of their pay the day after they get it, Pianin said, instead of having to wait two weeks for a paycheck.

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

At its Sahara Sam’s water park in West Berlin, New Jersey, the company lowered its minimum working age from 16 to 15 in an attempt to recruit a larger pool of applicants.

Johnathon Miller thought he would have to wait until August, when he is 16, to start working. But when he heard about a lowered age limit at Sahara Sam, he applied – and got the job. He will soon be a lifeguard, monitoring the artificial river for $ 15 an hour, a few dollars more than what Sahara Sam paid before.

“I can’t wait to work,” said Mr. Miller, who lives in Woolwich Township, New Jersey – so much so that he also interested a friend: “He thought, ‘Whoa, they hire at [age] 15? ‘ “

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

Mr Kapoor concedes that young recruits need catering training and might not stay long. But there are advantages to having teenagers on staff. They are generally inclined to persuade their friends to work or eat there, giving Curry Up Now a stream of future workers and customers. And they updated the restaurant’s music, adding more songs from the 80s and 90s as well as tunes from India and the Middle East.

That said, the recovery in teen employment may not last. The pre-pandemic trend of fewer young workers in restaurants and entertainment venues could reaffirm if the economy’s labor shortages are ultimately resolved.

Still, Mr Harrington, director of Drexel’s Labor Markets Center, notes that “employers have dropped the labor queue as the supply of adult labor grows. become more limited ”.

If the economic recovery continues to reduce unemployment and if federal policymakers continue to restrict the inflow of low-skilled foreign workers, “then the chances of sustained growth in adolescent employment rates are good,” Mr. Harrington.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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