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 who are willing to bus restaurant tables or serve as water-park 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 2007-2009 Great Recession, when older workers often took such jobs and teens were sometimes squeezed out.
The time, an acute labor shortage, especially at restaurants, 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, that is still higher than it was 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 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.
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 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 do remain have been increasingly likely to be taken by older workers, many of them foreign born.
In addition, teens from affluent families have for years chosen summer academic programs over jobs or have pursued ambitious volunteer work in hopes of distinguishing their applications for college. 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, retail shops and amusement parks have been overwhelmed by pent-up demand from consumers who had mostly hunkered down for a year or more.
Now, those businesses need employees to handle the influx and are scrambling to find enough.
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.
At Curry Up Now, the restaurant pays $2 an hour above the minimum wage, which is $15 or more an hour, depending on the 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 for 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.