Forget washing dishes or bagging – teenagers are snapping up any jobs they want as ‘desperate’ employers scramble to fill positions

With unemployment hitting new lows, employers are scrambling these days to find skilled workers. Enter Gen Z — who previously proved their mettle in last summer’s hiring spree.

“I think the reason we’re seeing an even stronger youth job market this summer than last summer is precisely because employers have rediscovered that teenagers can I do business,” says Alicia Modestino, an economist at Northeastern University.

Data from HR and payroll company Gusto shows that 15- to 19-year-olds accounted for almost 10% of new hires in April 2022 – a sharp increase from just 2% in April 2019.

And then in May, that rose to 13 percent, according to Gusto economist Luke Pardue.

This rise may not surprise you, given that the youth unemployment rate hit a 70-year low and the number of teenagers looking for work or currently in the labor market surpassed the highest level the country has seen since 2008, explains Modestino.

But teenagers may be surprised to discover how much power they wield so early in their careers.

“This is as good as it gets for young people to be able to find work.”

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Teenagers more active than ever in the labor market

With the overall unemployment rate at just 3.5 percent and many workers leaving their jobs for better opportunities, teenage employment rates have increased, according to Pardue.

“We saw – post-pandemic last year – small businesses looking to teenagers to fill some of the gaps as older workers were unable or unwilling to return to the workforce. And we see that happening again this year to a greater extent,” he says.

He adds that teenagers may even give employers an edge in the current job market, citing advanced digital skills and greater energy.

Modestino says she has seen many employers where she lives in Boston rehire the teenagers they had last year for their summer work programs. However, he notes that while the data shows there is a strong job market for young people right now, it is not necessarily equal.

Last summer, nearly four in 10 white teens were working, compared with 29.4 percent of black teens, 28.6 percent of Hispanic teens and 20.2 percent of Asian teens, according to the Pew Research Center.

“There’s a whole group of young people who are left out of this very strong job market, and that’s where a lot of these summer youth employment programs come in, in the inner cities to try to level that playing field,” says Modestino.

Employers are desperate for new talent

As a group, however, young people can aim for jobs both higher and wider than usual.

“It’s never been a better time to be a teenager looking for work,” says Pardue.

“They can get creative, so they don’t have to look for the usual restaurant or corner retail store where they might have looked for a summer job in the past. They can really try to broaden their horizons and choose a job that suits their interests and skills.”

Gusto’s data shows that while teenage recruitment has always been strong in the retail and hospitality sectors, there has also been an increase in professional services (such as accountancy and law firms) from 1.1% to 5.9% between 2019 and 2022.

Modestino says she hasn’t seen that trend in the data she’s looked at, but agrees there has been strong hiring and wage growth in retail and hospitality.

“I think so [teens] they should be prepared for employers who are desperate,” he notes.

Employers offer better pay, benefits and bonuses

Part of what may be luring teenagers into the workforce is that the pay is better than ever. The average hourly wage for teenagers reached $14.95/hour in May, according to Gusto.

The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) recently made headlines for raising its starting pay for lifeguards (who must be at least 16 years old to apply) from $16 to $17/hour and then to $19 /time.

“It’s been hard to get help,” says Sarah Battistini, DEEP’s environmental analyst and water safety coordinator.

Battistini says DEEP was already on track to increase the starting pay to $17/hour. However, they increased the rate in hopes of attracting more applicants.

It’s not just higher pay that teenagers are looking for – opportunities for career development or upward mobility are also attractive.

For example, the lifeguard position at Rocky Neck State Park comes with paid training and an annual raise. Eighteen-year-old Ryan Anderson started as a lifeguard three years ago with a base salary of $12/hour, but now it’s up to $20/hour.

Battistini says they also prefer to promote from within. The main benefit of hiring a 16-year-old, he explains, is long-term retention.

“You’re trained, you’re doing a good job, you’re starting to demonstrate those leadership skills, and then we’ll work to develop you professionally into a higher-level supervisory position,” Battistini says.

“And then when I have returning lifeguards, I invest in them and give them additional training and additional certifications.”

Helping teenagers expand their horizons in the job search

Some businesses sweeten the pot even more to entice new workers. Modestino says she’s seen $500 signing bonuses at some grocery stores, extra pay for working nights and weekends at retailers like Target and even tuition assistance at businesses like Amazon.

And while some employers may want teens to work as many hours as possible, she adds that in this competitive market, teens have the bargaining power to negotiate — whether it’s scheduling, responsibility or pay.

Modestino says that while teens can afford to be picky, they need to put themselves out there.

“The advice I gave my kids was don’t just apply to one job. Apply to many. But don’t take the first job offer you get.”

Anderson adds that landing your first job with no prior experience can still be difficult, but places like Rocky Neck are actively recruiting teenagers. He has even recruited several of his friends.

“Most of the kids I know are going to college, and I hope they know how to pay for it,” she says. “[Working] it’s great to spend your summers.”

A first job can be scary, adds 17-year-old Ben Schies, another Rocky Neck lifeguard. However, it’s also rewarding – and he’s learned skills he can take with him into the rest of his career.

“You’re going to have these people’s lives in your hands sometimes. It’s scary, but it’s also a great experience,” says Schies. “I would recommend it to anyone.”

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This article provides information only and should not be construed as advice. Provided without warranty of any kind.

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