Forget washing dishes or bagging groceries — teens are seizing whatever jobs they want as ‘desperate’ employers try to fill seats
Aug 29th, 2022 6:00 EST
With unemployment hitting new lows, employers are turning over rocks these days to find qualified workers. Enter Gen Z — who previously proved their mettle in last summer’s hiring spree.
“I think why we're seeing this summer be an even stronger labor market for young people than last summer, is exactly because employers did rediscover that teenagers can do jobs,” says Alicia Modestino, an economist at Northeastern University.
Data from HR and payroll company Gusto shows teens aged 15 to 19 years old accounted for almost 10% of new hires in April 2022 — a sharp rise from when they made up just 2% in April 2019.
And then in the month of May, that rose to 13%, according to Gusto economist Luke Pardue.
That spike might not surprise you, given that the unemployment rate for young people hit a 70-year low, and the number of teens looking for work or currently in the labor market breached the highest level the country has seen since 2008, Modestino explains.
But teens may be surprised to discover just how much power they hold so early in their careers.
“This is about as good as it gets for young people to be able to find a job.”
Teens more active than ever in the labor market
With the overall unemployment rate at just 3.5% and plenty of workers quitting their jobs for better opportunities, teen hiring rates have surged, according to Pardue.
“We saw — after the pandemic last year — small businesses look to teenagers to fill some of the gaps as older workers were unable or unwilling to return to the labor force. And we're seeing that happen this year again to a larger extent,” he says.
He adds that teenagers may even provide employers with an edge in the current labor market, citing advanced digital skills and greater energy.
Modestino says she’s seen plenty of employers where she lives in Boston rehiring the teenagers they had last year for their summer jobs programs. However, she notes that while data shows there’s a strong labor market for youth right now, it’s not necessarily equal.
Last summer, almost four in 10 white teens were employed, compared with 29.4% of Black teens, 28.6% of Hispanic teens and 20.2% of Asian teens, according to the Pew Research Center.
“There's a whole set of young people who are being left out of this very strong labor market, and that's where a lot of those summer youth employment programs come in, in the inner cities to try to level that playing field,” Modestino says.
Employers are desperate for new talent
As a group, though, young people are able to aim for jobs both higher and broader than usual.
“It's never been a better time to be a teenager looking for a job,” says Pardue.
“They're able to get creative, so they don't need to look for the usual restaurant or corner retail shop where they might have looked for a summer job before. They can really try to expand their horizons and pick a job that fits their interests and their skills.”
Gusto data shows that while teen hiring has always been strong across the retail and hospitality sectors, there has also been an increase in professional services (such as accounting and law firms) from 1.1% to 5.9% between 2019 and 2022.
Modestino says she hasn’t seen this trend in the data she’s reviewed, but agrees that there’s been strong hiring and wage growth in retail and hospitality.
“I think [teens] should be prepared for employers who are desperate,” she notes.
Employers are offering better pay, perks and bonuses
Part of what may be luring teens into the labor force is that the pay is better than ever. Average hourly wages for teenagers hit $14.95/hour in May, according to Gusto.
Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) recently made headlines for upping its starting pay for lifeguards (who must be at least 16 to apply) from $16 to $17/hour, and then to $19/hour.
“It has been difficult to find help,” says Sarah Battistini, an environmental analyst and water safety coordinator at DEEP.
Battistini says DEEP was already on a trajectory to raise the starting pay to $17/hour; however, they boosted the rate in hopes of drawing more applicants.
It’s not just higher pay that teens are looking for — opportunities for professional development or upward mobility are also attractive.
For example, the lifeguard position at Rocky Neck State Park comes with paid training and a yearly raise. Eighteen-year-old Ryan Anderson started lifeguarding three years ago at an entry-level salary of $12/hour but has now worked his way up to over $20/hour.
Battistini says they also prefer to promote from within. The base benefit of hiring a 16-year-old, she explains, is long-term retention.
“You've trained, you do a good job, you start to show those leadership skills, then we're going to work to professionally develop you into a higher-level supervisory position,” says Battistini.
“And then, once I have lifeguard supervisors that are returning, I invest in them and give them additional training and additional certifications.”
Helping teens expand their job-search horizons
Some businesses are sweetening the pot even more to entice young workers. Modestino says she’s seen $500 signing bonuses at some grocery stores, extra pay for working nights and weekends at retailers like Target and even tuition assistance at businesses like Amazon.
And while some employers may want teens to work as many hours as possible, she adds that in this competitive market, teens have the bargaining power to negotiate — whether that comes to scheduling, responsibility or pay.
Modestino says while teens can afford to be choosy, they do need to put themselves out there.
“The advice that I gave my kids was don't apply to just one job. Apply to several. But don't take the first job offer you get, either.”
Anderson adds that finding your first job with no prior experience can still be difficult, but places like Rocky Neck are actively recruiting teens. He’s even recruited several of his friends.
“Most kids I know are going to college, and I hope they know how to pay for that,” he says. “[Working] is a great thing to do during your summers.”
A first job can be daunting, adds 17-year-old Ben Schies, another lifeguard at Rocky Neck. However, it’s also rewarding — and he’s learned skills that he can take with him through the rest of his career.
“You're gonna have these people's lives in your hands sometimes. It's scary, but it's also a great experience,” Schies says. “I would recommend it to anybody.”
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