06/11/2021 Jeni Kramer

Summer jobs are back (and teens can take their pick)

What a difference a year makes! Last summer we were concerned that COVID had all but killed the starter job. With many of the industries that typically employ young workers (retail, restaurant and recreation) halted by lockdowns, seasonal work opportunities for new job seekers were nearly non-existent. This summer we find ourselves in a vastly different situation, with a job market that seems to be tailor made for teens.

With job search activity down and recruitment costs up, many employers are struggling to find enough adult workers to fill their rosters. That struggle comes at a difficult time, to say the least, as businesses attempt to prepare for a busy summer. In order to keep doors open, employers are looking to young people to fill staffing gaps

Teens who answer the call to work are finding a red hot labor market full of favorable conditions like high wages and flexible schedules. These incentives appear to be working. In May, the share of working 16- to 19-year-olds hit 33.2%, the highest rate since 2008, according to figures by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is a significant rebound from the record-low teen-employment rates observed at the height of the pandemic, with the level sinking to 20% in April 2020. While the current figure is impressive, the numbers are still far from the “golden age” of teenage summer jobs—in the 1970’s teenage-employment rates were at near-50% levels.  

Overall, teen-employment rates have been dropping for decades. When only able to  access positions offering low wages and few benefits, teens tend to shift their time and efforts toward academic or sport activities rather than joining the workforce. But the current climate may be enough to help reverse this phenomenon, with rising pay rates serving to lure teens back to traditional summer jobs. Staffing firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas projects that teens will add as many as two million jobs to the economy this summer.

Though it can serve as a stop gap solution where employers are struggling to find adult workers, experts caution that rising teen-employment comes with potential downsides as well. The most obvious being the potential to distract from academic pursuits like summer activities, internships or other opportunities. Another key concern is whether the perks and better pay of the current labor market will benefit all young workers. 

Employment among white teens took a toll early in the pandemic, but they have led the gains in 2021. Comparatively, Black teens have added few jobs and Hispanic teens actually lost jobs, continuing a long-running disparity in which white teens work in much greater numbers. Experts warn the gap could widen if we continue on the current trajectory. 

There are a variety of factors at play in this disparity. More limited access to transportation may limit many minority teens’ ability to work. Plus, as pandemic recovery continues suburban neighborhoods are booming while urban centers largely reliant on  public transit remain short on foot traffic, which may be disadvantageous to teens who live in cities.

The long term impact of this sudden rise in teen-employment remains to be seen. As does the sustainability of the jump in opportunities for young workers. It will be fascinating to see how the numbers change once more experienced applicants are willing and able to return to the workforce. But for now, expect to see plenty of fresh faces staffing your local restaurants, pools, and golf courses this season.