But as the school year winds down, it seems possible that employment opportunities for entry-level workers are revving up.
“Teenagers have been all so cooped up for a year and they want to do something outside their home,” says Andrew Challenger, a senior vice president at the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “There is a real desire to be a part of something and get a job.”
And, lucky for teens and young adults, employers seem to want them. “Calling all college students,” reads an ad for housekeepers at Newport Beach Hotel and Suites in Rhode Island. “The city of Fremont has Summer Job opportunities for high school students,” reads a California city’s Facebook post. An Ohio Papa John’s is seeking high school and college students. Some all but beg. Laguna Woods, a California senior living community, offers server positions that are “Great for students — Good pay — no experience required” and not “high-pressure.”
The allure for employers? Teens might not have a lot of experience, but they will often work cheap, for minimum wage or close to it.
The industries most traditionally friendly to less experienced employees — think restaurants and retail — were among those pummeled by covid-related shutdowns. Now, as vaccinations rise and restrictions ease, these employers are coming back.
But their employees are another story.
People who own or manage restaurants, resorts and retail shops across the country are howling that they can’t find enough help. As shutdowns dragged on, some workers moved to other jobs or changed careers. The combination of remote school and loss of child care has removed millions of women from the workforce. Census data found last year that women are the majority of retail workers; they have left other industries too. Of course, many adults concerned about covid-19 exposure have been reluctant to resume in-person work.
Economists and business owners have been debating whether the $300 weekly federal supplement to unemployment benefits is allowing some people to wait longer before returning to work. The governors of South Carolina and Montana said last week that they would cease offering the supplement at the end of June because they believe it encourages people to remain outside the paid workforce.
For many adults, who have housing, utility and other significant expenses, the pay offered by entry-level and near-minimum-wage jobs is a lousy income. (A survey released last week by One Fair Wage and the University of California Berkeley Food Labor Research Center found a majority of workers in the restaurant industry were contemplating leaving it, largely because of low wages.) Many employers are resisting major wage boosts — likely thinking that their employment issues are temporary and will ease as the pandemic recedes and more Americans return to the workforce.
So they are appealing to high-schoolers, college students and other young adults — a group typically less concerned about long-term wages, less likely to be fearful of covid-19, rarely eligible for unemployment and still lacking other options as the academic year ends, because the number of posted internships remains well below 2019 levels.
If a significant number of teenage workers emerge this summer, it would mark something of a cultural shift. It used to be the norm that most teenagers took up paid employment during the summer. If you are 45 or older, this group likely includes you. (My own summer gigs included babysitting and taping posters to lamp posts for the long-gone Soho News.)
But this began to change in the 1990s, and contrary to popular myths, teenage laziness and entitlement were not to blame. As elite college admissions became more competitive, more and more high school students began spending their summers not scooping ice cream but tackling activities such as competitive travel team sports and pre-professional internships — efforts they continued after their higher education began, too.
Meanwhile, competition for the entry-level jobs favored by teenagers and college students heated up as retirees, immigrants and workers displaced by downturns also sought these positions. By 2019, barely a third of 16-to-19-year-olds worked in July or August, according to the Pew Research Center.
Whatever increases in youth employment appear this summer, don’t count on this blast from the past continuing. Pre-pandemic pressures in student life are all but certain to resume. Should employee shortages continue into the fall — the unemployment supplement is scheduled to end in September — wages will need to increase. One way or the other, more adults will return to working in the service sector.