The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Covid-19 has gotten a helicopter generation of teens to embrace work. Just in time.

Jason Mabry, 18, and Jonah Staub, 19, got their first summer jobs this year, hosting at Uncle Julio’s restaurant in Annapolis.
Jason Mabry, 18, and Jonah Staub, 19, got their first summer jobs this year, hosting at Uncle Julio’s restaurant in Annapolis. (Petula Dvorak/The Washington Post)

My son was in high demand.

One place was offering him a daily bonus just for being on time.

Another kept pursuing him, asking twice for an interview because they loved his résumé, even when he didn’t respond to their emails. They even floated the possibility of tuition assistance.

The third place was offering a signing bonus.

He’s 16 and has never been employed. That résumé? Assistant captain of the high school junior varsity hockey team was the highlight.

The teen summer job market is on fire, and it’s largely thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

For the past few years, the growing gig economy that forced a class of adult workers into multiple low-paying jobs helped freeze teens out of the job market — and an essential rite of passage.

Then there’s the J-1 visa program, which explains why so many of the summer’s lifeguards, boardwalk barkers and camp counselors in past years have had Balkan accents.

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Add to that a class of lawn-mower parents who buzz alleged obstacles to success out of the way for their kids. They believe busing tables or scooping ice cream isn’t maximizing their progenies’ future success (it is) and instead put them in specialized camps, clinics and advanced summer courses. For all those reasons, the American teen summer job was going the way of the pay phone.

But the wild Tilt-a-Whirl that has been the American economy during the pandemic is now presenting these teens with a huge demand for low-wage seasonal work, just as the nation breaks out of a year-long shutdown and into restaurants and bars and on vacation.

“It’s just a fact that the teens are the ones showing up for the interviews,” said Ellen James, 24, one of the hiring managers at Uncle Julio’s in Annapolis, a Mexican restaurant chain that is offering a $500 hiring bonus for everyone, even 16-year-old busboys.

“We’ve always had a referral bonus, but this year, to incentivize applicants, we’re offering it to all new hires,” James said. “And this summer, we have quite a few teens on our team.”

The hiring ads are in windows all over town.

This is how it used to be 40 years ago, when about 60 percent of American teenagers had jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That number started dropping in the 1980s and has fallen since, prompting old-timers to harrumph at what slackers these lazy kids are.

But the truth is, school enrollment during the summer jumped from 1 in 10 kids hitting the books in 1985 to 42 percent of kids in classes during the summer of 2016, that bureau white paper told us.

The ritual of senior week at the beach. Why aren’t the teens working?

And it’s not summer school catch-up. These are kids doing extra coursework to beef up their résumés or get ahead in college.

“Parental emphasis on the rewards of education has contributed to the decline in teen labor force participation,” the folks at the Bureau of Labor Statistics said.

Jason Mabry, 18, was one of those teens. Advanced coursework and family obligations kept the Bowie teen from getting a job in past summers. But this year, with coronavirus restrictions still in place on some school programs and his freshman year at George Mason University looming, he had no problem entering the job market.

“I have to get used to coming in early now and working long hours,” Mabry told me, explaining that the few weeks holding down the host stand at Uncle Julio’s in Annapolis have taught him about the working world.

His partner in juggling hungry guests and a busy dining room, Jonah Staub, wanted to work during past summers, but there were very few seasonal jobs available. Some disappeared; many were taken by older workers.

“You just couldn’t find them,” said the 19-year-old, who is heading to Towson University in the fall to study nursing. “And now, I interviewed at so many places. But this one had the bonus.”

Since the 1940s, teen summer employment has usually followed the U.S. economy — low during hard times, high when the nation is flush. And that usually stayed between 40 and 60 percent, according to a Pew Research Center report on teen jobs.

But those rates never bounced back after the 1990s, and never again did at least half of America’s teens know what it felt like to put on a name tag and punch a clock.

Hogan says it’s time to get back to work. For the laid off, it’s not that simple.

Then 2021 happened — coronavirus restrictions were lifted, and businesses across America were short-staffed. With enhanced federal unemployment benefits still flowing, vaccinations in progress and child care still hard to come by, employers also couldn’t woo adult workers back into their low-paying jobs. The State Department’s travel ban on 33 countries thwarted would-be J-1 visa workers.

By last month, 33.2 percent of the nation’s teens between 16 and 19 had shown up for work, the highest number since 2008, according to the bureau’s May jobs report.

And that’s good news, for the economy and the nation’s soul.

Everyone should experience work in the service industry. Nothing builds character, empathy, money literacy and people skills like a low-paying job.

“It should be mandatory,” said James, the manager at Uncle Julio’s.

My older teen didn’t thrive during the shutdown. He grew surly, lonely and depressed. It got worse when the international trip he was supposed to take with his Latin club was canceled for the second year in a row.

But two weeks ago, I heard something I haven’t heard from him in months — joy.

“They hired me!” my son exclaimed, an hour after his interview at a coffee and doughnut shop.

Within a week, he reported for duty — leaving the house at 5:30 a.m.

He’s proud of his name tag and apron, modeling it for us at home. He doesn’t complain about the clunky nonslip work shoes he’s required to wear that we bought at Walmart. He comes home on fire after a shift, marveling at the technology of each drink machine he learns to use, the intricate coffee recipes he has to learn (and of course insights about how we’ve been doing it all wrong) and the weird things people leave in bathroom stalls (gummy bear and Twinkie wrappers in one).

And he got something he’ll never get at the camps, clinics, trips and seminars some of his peers are at this week.

“No way I’m going to pay $40 for that,” he said last night, looking at yet another computer-building component he wouldn’t hesitate to ask me for a month ago. “That’s not worth four hours of work.”

Twitter: @petulad

Read more Petula Dvorak:

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