With higher wages and better hours, teenagers jump into the labor market

Teens come to the rescue of entrepreneurs struggling to find enough workers in one of the hottest job markets in decades.

Teens are now working in greater numbers than since before the 2008-09 financial crisis, when summer and part-time jobs were a more common rite of passage into adulthood, government statistics show. They have become indispensable especially in the retail sector, tourism and hospitality industries, which many adults abandoned during the pandemic

According to figures released Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate among 16- to 19-year-old workers was 10.2% in April, down from the 68-year low of 9.6% it reached in May last year. . In all, about a third of American teens in that age group now work, federal data shows.

Makayla McDonald


Moniah McDonald

Many entrepreneurs say find a teenager renting can be difficult. They scout teen job fairs, make schedules more flexible, and increase training to accommodate and entice youthful recruits.

For teens, the current conditions are shaping up to create one of the best summer job markets in years, complete with more options and, in many cases, better pay.

Makayla McDonald, a 17-year-old in Montgomery, Ala., will return to her job as a lifeguard this summer. She first landed it a year ago as part of an effort by the city’s mayor to encourage teen work.

“I really like working,” said Ms. McDonald, who splits her salary between college tuition, church fees, a fund for a loungewear business she hopes to start, and money to get her hair or nails done. “My mom is a single mom, so I’ve seen the value of working hard and getting paid for it,” she said.

Last summer, Ms. McDonald worked six days a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. staffing a lifeguard in the Alabama heat and reminding swimmers to walk on deck and not run. The job had its challenges – frogs from a nearby creek would sometimes find their way into the pool. Still, she bonded with her co-workers and enjoyed the $10 an hour she earned.

Prepandemic employment for teens had been declining for more than five decades. Automation eliminated many low-paying jobs, while immigrants took over others, according to economists.

In the wake of the 2008-09 financial crisis, more adults took on certain jobs to make ends meet, often occupying part-time positions previously commonplace for teenagers, according to Alicia Sasser Modestino, a labor economist who studies youth workers.

The lives of many teenagers changed too. Extracurricular activities, unpaid internships, and creating resumes filled the hours that might previously have been spent stocking shelves or scooping ice cream.

Ms. McDonald, for example, balances attending one of the country’s most rigorous high schools with participation in honorary societies, student government, the debate team, the step team, softball, and a variety of local volunteer positions.

Early pandemic lockdowns drove teenage unemployment to an all-time high of 31.9% in April 2020. Now, a tight labor market and rising wages in jobs per hour that teens are more likely to hire create a job bonanza.

“Adult employees said, ‘I don’t want this crazy, low-paid service job with a ridiculous schedule, few benefits and rude customers anymore,’ said Ms. Modestino. So ’employers suddenly turned to young people’.

A summer job fair for teens in Arlington, Virginia, on a recent Saturday, attracted about 700 attendees, including about 100 parents — a sturdier crowd than recent adult job events, according to organizers. The event, in person for the first time since 2019, helped teen job seekers connect with 30 employers for positions in retail, hospitality, restaurants, summer camps and water parks.

McCauley Masley, an eighth-grader who attended the fair, said she was looking for a job that would allow her to increase her allowance for travel to Target and CVS and meals with friends.

Shira Alatin


Maya Alatin

In addition, “I wanted to get an experience job as early as possible to put on resumes,” she said.

Although she was nervous talking to a representative at a local AMC theater, she said she plans to apply there when she turns 14 in June. It would be her first job after a few house and pet sitting gigs for family and friends.

Itai Ben Eli, a restaurateur in Houston, said that one’s first employer comes with their extra responsibilities, but has been worth the investment. A almost all teenage staffwho he said he had lured with pay raises allowed him to open a European-style bakery, Badolina, last June when he couldn’t find the mature workers he needed.

He adapted accordingly, extending a 10-day training process to a month in which his new young employees shadow more experienced employees, learn the menu, practice using a point-of-sale system and build trust by talking to customers.

“We could mold them and learn what’s important to us,” said Mr. Ben Eli. He has since promoted two of the teenagers he hired at Badolina to leaders.

Shira Alatin, who is 17, started working at Badolina last summer when the pandemic disrupted her typical summer plans, such as an annual family trip to Israel. There she went through various responsibilities: clearing tables, delivering food and preparing coffee drinks. Her parents and older sister all started working young, so getting a job seemed like a natural way to fill time and earn money, she said.

“I love the interactions,” said Ms. Alatin, who continued to work in the bakery on the weekends when school started again. Later this month, she will also start a job as a weeknight hostess at Hamsa, one of Mr. Ben Eli’s other restaurants. “A lot of Israelis are coming in; I would talk to them in Hebrew and they would be really surprised,’ she said.

Write to Kathryn Dill on kathryn.dill@wsj.com

Starting in a hot market

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