Roller coaster riders and lemonade slingers at Kennywood Amusement Park, a summer staple in Pittsburgh, don’t have to buy their own uniforms this year. Those with a high school diploma also earn $ 13 as a starting wage – up from $ 9 last year – and new hires get free season passes for themselves and their families.
The high wages and perks for Kennywood’s seasonal workers, where nearly half of the workforce are under the age of 18, reflect what happens across the country as employers seek to hire waiters, receptionists, and other service workers to meet rising demand satisfy when the economy opens up again.
For American teenagers looking for work, this may be their best summer in years.
With businesses trying to get filled from barely occupied to full practically overnight, teenagers seem to win more than any other demographic. The proportion of 16-19 year olds in work has not been so high since 2008, before the spreading global financial crisis led to a decline in employment. Around 256,000 young people in this age group found employment in April – which makes up the vast majority of those newly hired – a significant change after young people suffered severe job losses at the start of the pandemic. Whether the trend can hold will be clearer when the job data for May is released on Friday.
It could have a downside. Some educators warn that jobs can be a distraction from school. And while employment itself can provide learning opportunities, the recent wave of recruitment has been led by white teenagers, raising concerns that minority youth may miss out on a hot summer job market.
“A rising tide doesn’t raise all boats,” said Alicia Sasser Modestino, an economist at Northeastern University who studies labor markets for young people. Still, “There could be some really good opportunities for teenagers that we haven’t seen in a long time – that’s good.”
For Hayley Bailley, a 17-year-old from Irwin, Pennsylvania, Kennywood’s summer hiring spurt meant an opportunity to earn more for the car she wants to buy. Ms. Bailley, a high school graduate, was excited to take a job running an antique roller coaster and snapping people into paddle boats when she believed she was paying $ 9. When she found out the park was raising the pay to $ 13 an hour, she was delighted.
“I love it,” she said. She doesn’t even mind walking backwards on the carousel to make sure everyone is driving safely, though it can be confusing. “After you see the little kids and they give you high fives, it doesn’t matter at all.”
It’s not just Kennywood who pays. According to Luke Pardue, an economist with the company, in a database compiled by payroll platform Gusto, small businesses have raised wages for youth in the service sector in recent months. Teens had taken a blow at the start of the pandemic but returned to their pre-coronavirus wage levels in March 2021 and spent the first half of May hurrying their wages beyond that.
“It’s great that business and small businesses have this pressure relief valve,” said Pardue. “From the perspective of gaining experience and also earning money, this is a positive development.”
For employers, young people can be a critical new source of labor at a time when demand is growing and vacancies are not filled.
Health concerns and childcare challenges seem to deter some older workers from finding work quickly. Extended unemployment insurance benefits can also give workers the financial cushion they need for better opportunities. These challenges are compounded by the fact that the United States issued far fewer work visas to immigrants during the pandemic due to travel and other restrictions. As a result, there is a lack of employees from abroad who normally fill temporary, agricultural and seasonal positions.
The recruitment crisis is felt across the country.
Cape Cod restaurants have long relied on seasonal workers to prepare lobster rolls and maintain bar and bus tables. However, it has become difficult to fill jobs with fewer overseas workers and rising property prices are keeping local seasonal workers out, said Will Moore, manager at Spankys Clam Shack and Seaside Saloon in Hyannis, Mass.
“I think everyone’s hoping that when the college kids get here and the high school kids graduate, band aids will come over the holes,” he said.
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May 28, 2021 at 12:54 p.m. ET
With temperatures rising in Henderson, Kentucky, officials feared they would not have enough lifeguards to open their only public swimming pool for the summer.
By mid-May, they had around six applicants for the position, paying a starting salary of $ 8.50 an hour. The city requires a minimum of eight lifeguards a day to keep the entire pool safe. The limited interest reflected a perfect storm: the pool was not opened last year due to the pandemic, so lifeguards could not be hired as of 2020, and youth workers were welcomed by higher wages on local fast food and big box retail jobs lured.
The city government increased the starting salary to $ 10 an hour on May 25 and lowered the minimum age for applicants from 16 to 15 years. It seems to have worked: more teenagers applied and the city has started surveying candidates for the vacancies.
“It seems that a lot of entry-level retail salaries really increased between 2020 and 2021, and we just had to catch up if we were to be competitive and attract qualified applicants,” said Trace Stevens, City Park Director and Recreation.
Teens make more than just thicker paychecks when employers try to attract applicants. Kennywood employees receive seasonal parking passes for themselves and three family members – a bonus worth around $ 300. Applebee’s offered an “Apps for Apps” deal in which interviewed applicants received a free starter voucher. Restaurants and gas stations across the country are offering signing bonuses.
But the benefits and better pay may not reach everyone. White teens lost their jobs sharply at the start of the pandemic, and led the gains in 2021, although black teens added comparatively few and Hispanic teens actually lost jobs. This continues a long-term disparity with white teens working in much larger numbers, and the gap could worsen if the current trajectory continues.
Restricted access to transport is one factor that can deter minority youth from work, said Ms. Sasser Modestino. While places like Cape Cod and suburbs begin to boom, pedestrian traffic remains low in some urban centers on public transportation, which can put youth who live in cities at a disadvantage.
“We haven’t seen the demand yet,” said Joseph McLaughlin, director of research and evaluation at Boston Private Industry Council, who helps students with paid internships and helps others apply to private employers such as grocery stores.
Ms. Sasser Modestino’s research has shown that the long-term decline in youth work is partly due to a shift towards study preparation and internships, but that many young people still need and want jobs for economic reasons. But the types of jobs teenagers have traditionally held have dwindled – blockbuster gigs are a thing of the past – and older workers are increasingly filling them.
Teens who benefit now may not have a cheap job market in the long run, said Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Center for Education and Labor at Georgetown University.
“There can certainly be a brief positive effect as young people can move into many occupations that adults have declined in for some reason,” he said. “It will only be temporary because we always take care of the adults first.”
Educators have raised another concern: that today’s numerous and successful teenage jobs could distract students from their studies.
When classes resumed last August at Torrington High School, which serves 330 students in a small Wyoming town, headmaster Chase Christensen found that about 10 of his senior students were not returning. They had taken full-time jobs, including night shifts in a nursing home and working in a gravel pit, and were reluctant to give up the money. Five have dropped out or not graduated from high school since then.
“They got used to paying a full-time worker,” Christensen said. “You get jobs that high schoolers don’t normally get.”
If better career prospects in the short term overtake teenagers’ plans for additional education or training, it could also create problems. Economic research consistently finds that those who manage to get additional training have better-paying careers.
Nonetheless, Ms. Sasser Modestino pointed out that much of the hiring is now for summer jobs, which are less likely to disrupt school. And there can be advantages. For people like Ms. Bailley, this represents an opportunity to save on textbooks and lessons. She wants to go to community college to qualify and then get an engineering degree.
“I’ve always been interested in robots, I love programming and coding,” she explained, saying that learning how roller coasters work fits with her academic interests.
Shaylah Bentley, 18, and a new season ticket at Kennywood, said the above-expected wage she earns will allow her to decorate her dormitory at Slippery Rock University. She is on the advance for the second year this year and is studying sports science.
“I wanted to save money on school and expenses,” she said. “And have something to do this summer.”