That summer job before college? It comes with a raise. Teens cash in on hot labor market

 As the pandemic recedes and more Americans travel, attend ballgames and resume other summer rituals, employers are relying on a secret weapon to meet the surging demand: teenagers.

Teens are expected to make up nearly 1 in 5 summer hires this year, according to data provided exclusively to USA TODAY by Gusto, a payroll process for small businesses.

Although many U.S. adults sidelined by the pandemic have returned to the labor force, teens have streamed back more swiftly, especially for summer jobs. Many are drawn by sharply higher pay and a desire to get out of the house after long stretches of remote classes and other pandemic-related constraints the past few years, experts say.

“Even though the overall economy is slowing, the (job) market for teenagers is still very strong," says Gusto economist Luke Pardue.

The robust teenage workforce is helping restaurants, amusement parks, hotels, malls and other businesses stay open longer and provide faster and better service to consumers as pandemic-related worker shortages improve but persist in many regions. It’s also bolstering an economy that most forecasters believe will slip into a recession later this year.

Summer jobs for teens broke a record last year, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. This year is shaping up to be nearly as good according to job outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
Working at a restaurant is a popular summer job for teenagers.  

Teenagers age 15 to 19 are expected to make up 18% of all summer hires, Gusto says, up from just 2% in 2019, before the pandemic began. That’s partly because there are disproportionately more jobs in restaurants, hotels, amusement parks, and stores as Americans step up summer activities. But even within that “personal services” category, teens are set to make up 26% of all hires, up from 21% a year ago, Gusto says.

More teens are getting snapped up by employers largely because more are looking for jobs.

What percent of teens have a job?

The share of 16- to 19-year-olds working or job hunting hit nearly 37% for all of last year, the highest since 2009, Labor Department figures show. Their participation rate peaked at almost 47% last July and that will likely be topped this summer, with the rate so far in 2023 already surpassing last year’s pace.  

The trend is partly reversing a longstanding decline in teen employment. The share of teens working or looking for jobs tumbled from 58% in 1979 to around 35% in 2020, Labor Department figures show. The drop-off can be traced to teens’ increased involvement in school activities, volunteer work, or gig jobs not tracked by Labor, as well as older and foreign workers taking jobs once filled by teens, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

How much money does the average teenager make?

Teens’ resurgence in the job market is partly rooted in higher pay, with the average national wage for 15- to 19-year-olds projected to reach $14.56 per hour this summer, up 9% from a year ago, says Pardue, citing figures from Gusto’s small business clients.

At the same time, he says, some employers prefer to hire teens during the current bout of high inflation because they’re less expensive than 25- to 54-year-olds, who are set to earn an average of $23 per hour this summer, up 2% from last year.

In Greenville, South Carolina, Table 301 has hired 32 high school and college students to work at its five downtown restaurants, quick-service eatery, and catering business this summer, says CEO Carl Sobocinski. Since the company is fully staffed, most of the remaining 20 applicants will likely be turned down.

Last summer, the company received far fewer applications and brought on just 19 students, leaving it short-staffed by 5%. The restaurants had to open at 5:30 p.m. instead of 5 and close at 9:30 p.m. instead of 10, Sobocinski says.

Taylor Dickson, 18. is a hostess at Table 301's Jones Oyster Co. restaurant in Greenville, SC
A teenage host at Table 301 a restaurant in Greenville, South Carolina.  

He partly attributes this year’s influx of teenage job candidates to wages of $12 an hour, up from $10 last summer, and $7 for tipped positions, up from $4.25. That’s healthy pay in the low-cost state whose minimum wage still matches the federal pay floor of $7.25 an hour.

“Fifteen and 16-year-olds earning $200-$400 a week for mostly part-time work is a lot for someone that age and they talk amongst each other,” Sobocinski says.

Are more people entering the workforce?

Yes. The participation rate for prime-age workers rose to just over 83% in May, above the 83% pre-pandemic level. But many restaurants, hotel, and other leisure and hospitality workers left the industry for more stable jobs during the depths of the health crisis and haven’t returned, says Andrew Challenger, senior vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement firm. That makes teenagers a more highly coveted workforce.

Sobocinski says fewer adults applied for summer jobs at his company this year because more have reentered the full-time workforce as COVID-19 has eased and aren’t available for temporary summer gigs.

Teens, meanwhile, are itching to work and hang out with peers after being stuck at home for long periods during the health crisis, Pardue says.

At the Art Factory, in Midlothian, Virginia, owner Tal Thompson hired 18 teenagers for the summer and teens comprise 28 of her 46 employees. The business houses an art studio and café and hosts parties, body paint sessions, and a summer camp.

This year, about 40 teens sought summer jobs, roughly doubling last year’s applicant pool.

“They’re just done being home,” Thompson says.

She welcomes the heightened interest. “I don’t have to post the job,” she says. “I have resumes sitting on my desk all the time.”

McKenzie Ewing, 17, a party host and camp counselor who works 15 to 20 hours a week, earns $11 an hour. While she is bringing home the same weekly total she raked in last summer as a Kohl's retail associate, she is having more fun and feeling less stress.

McKenzie Ewing, 17, helps kids at the Art Factory's summer camp
McKenzie Ewing, 17, helps kids at the Art Factory's summer camp  

“I knew I needed money for college,” she says.

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