Teens see pandemic-related shifts in summer jobs

Teenagers were not spared from the dwindling job opportunities that pervaded the nation due to COVID-19. Restrictions on pools, daycares, and food services made many typical summer jobs for students impossible this year.

According to a June report from Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., a global outplacement and career transitioning firm, employed teens are at the lowest level since the 1960s, despite gaining almost 600,000 jobs in May.

“Many businesses that primarily employ teens, like retail stores, amusement parks, and restaurants are slowly reopening for the summer,” Andrew Challenger, the firm’s senior vice president said in the report. “Many other businesses, such as movie theaters and summer youth programs, are not seeing the demand to add jobs or even reopen.”

The Roanoke region does not seem to be an exception to the slowdown in teen summer jobs.

The Grandin Theatre in Roanoke, which closed in March, furloughed all of its teen employees, said Ian Fortier, the theater’s executive director. The theater is back open in a reduced capacity, but Fortier said the essential staff does not include any teenagers.

Other summer closures, especially pools, greatly affected job opportunities for teens.

Chris Smith, 18, a student at Northside High School, said he was looking forward to lifeguarding outside at Green Ridge Recreation’s Splash Valley Water Park. But Splash Valley is closed for the summer, and all returning lifeguards were hired to work indoors only.

Smith has worked at both the indoor and outdoor pools at Green Ridge since he started lifeguarding in 2018, but he said he likes outdoor work better.

Most lifeguards at Green Ridge prefer to work at the outdoor water park, said aquatics supervisor Jen Ewan. Indoors, there is less excitement, especially because all the water attractions are taped off.

The indoor pool at Green Ridge opened for recreation and exercise on July 18.

“The biggest difference is probably the crowd,” Smith said. “It’s been pretty relaxed, not super busy.”

Layla St. Peter, 16, is also a student at Northside and a lifeguard at Green Ridge. She said she started working during the off-season last year, so she’s never worked outdoors. With Splash Valley closed, it’s no longer an option for St. Peter this summer.

Swimmers with the Virginia Gators Swim Club, a year-round competitive team, weren’t as lucky. Team members usually help manage Roanoke’s Fallon Park pool, said coach Brett Fonder.

“We have a lifeguarding clinic every spring to get the kids certified,” Fonder said. “It’s their way to make money over the summer.”

Normally, the pool has about 20 people on the staff, 15 of whom are kids on the swim team, he said.

But city pools are closed this summer due to the pandemic and related city budget cuts. This means many of the swimmers are out of a job this year. Some got a job at other pools, said Fonder, but have greatly reduced hours because of pool restrictions.

The YMCA of Virginia’s Blue Ridge is also open in a reduced capacity for the summer. Jennie Weeks, vice president of human resources, said the Y is employing lifeguards and Stay and Play child care workers, who are mostly high school students.

Weeks said they need lifeguards right now, as applications have slowed down in the past months.

Blue Cow Ice Cream, another typical summer job for students, has had the opposite issue. Owner Carolyn Kiser said she’s seen an increase in applications, although Blue Cow hasn’t needed to hire as many workers as usual. She said the ice cream shop typically employs a lot of students.

“Our applications have really increased this month — I think people just want something to do,” Kiser said in late June. “In the past we’ve done a lot of events in the summer, we’ll take our truck out to a festival or something. ... But because we’re not doing the events, we don’t need maybe as much people as we did last year.”

Blue Cow was open for curbside pickup during the first months of the pandemic and has since opened up for in-person orders, although dining inside is still prohibited.

Breanna Anderson, a student at Radford University who worked curbside, said she chose Blue Cow this summer because of its scheduling flexibility. She said she wanted to be employed by someone who would work with her if school picked back up.

Kroger also emphasized its ability to work with students around their uncertain schedules and has also seen an increase in applications this summer.

“Grocery stores experiencing massive demand during the onset of the pandemic moved quickly to beef up their staffs, and in many cases, those positions were filled by teen workers,” Challenger said in the teen jobs report.

Allison McGee, spokeswoman for Kroger’s Mid-Atlantic Division, said Kroger’s workforce has grown by 5,000 people since March.

“That may sound like a lot, but we still have hundreds of openings,” McGee said.

She said Kroger always hires all ages, but because school patterns changed, “a lot of teens have been more available to work.” Kroger hires employees as young as 14 with a work permit, McGee said.

Kroger will work with students to schedule shifts around their classes and provides tuition assistance for college students, McGee said.

“The great thing about retail is we can be very flexible with schedules,” she said.