Summer jobs for teenagers are expected to rise this summer. Even better news, while the job openings are higher, so too are the wages young workers can command.
Teens have a long history of labor market participation in America. Between World War II and the end of the 20th century, at least half of the nation's teenagers were active participants in the labor force.
Back in my day, getting a summer job in high school was a status symbol, a source of spending money, and a chance to show the world what I could accomplish given the chance. Back then, summer jobs provided real-world experience and helped street kids like me develop work-related skills, especially soft skills that apply to almost all career paths.
I credit summer and after-school jobs for keeping me on the right side of the law in a neighborhood where crime, gang fights, and booze on the corner were a nightly occurrence. Academic research indicates that summer employment still has positive effects on all of the above areas, plus teenagers' overall academic and career aspirations, work habits, and job readiness.
Over the past three years, as readers know, the U.S. has been wrestling with a nationwide labor shortage. Blame the Pandemic, the retirement of Baby Boomers, the strong economy, or whatever. One silver lining in this woeful tale is that the demand for teen labor has increased dramatically.
The workforce of 16- to 19-year-olds was hit hard by the Pandemic. That made sense since teens usually work at the entry-level in the retail trade, leisure, and hospitality sectors. Those were the areas that were most impacted by Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdowns, etc.
As the labor market began to bounce back in 2020, teen employment improved as many older workers continued to remain out of the workforce. Demand for service jobs skyrocketed. By the end of the first quarter of 2023, the teen employment rate in the U.S. stood at 33.4 percent. That was the highest rate since 2009, according to "The 2023 Summer Job Outlook for American Teens," a research study by Rhode Island College.
Since 2019, the tight labor market, especially at the entry-level, caused hourly wages to rise sharply. Weekly pay for summer teen workers increased from $280 in 2019 to $300 by the summer of 2022. That 7 percent increase beat the 20-to-24 age group's 4 percent gain and the prime age group (ages 25-54) wage gain of 2 percent. Older workers (over 55) saw wages decline by 1 percent.
The national lifeguard shortage is a good example of this trend. For the third summer in a row, a lack of lifeguards is expected to keep about a third of the nation's 309,000 public pools closed or operating with reduced hours. This does not include beaches, water parks, and other venues, which are in a similar position. Teenage workers are nowhere to be found. To woo more young workers, cities, and states are raising wages and/or offering incentives including one-time bonuses.
The bad news for teens overall is that since the turn of the century, the participation of teens in the workforce has been on a steady decline. At the peak of the 1990s' labor market boom, 52 percent of teens were working. Teens held one out of every 20 jobs across the nation. By the Great Recession of 2008-2009, the teen participation rate in the labor force fell to 41 percent and remained in a range of between 34-35 percent from 2011 through 2019. At that point, one out of every 30 jobs were held by teens.
No other group experienced such a sharp decline in employment during those years. What is worse, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has forecasted that by 2031, the teen participation rate will fall to under 30 percent.
The reasons for this troubling demographic are varied. Substantial job deficits were a source of unemployment for most Americans during the period in question. At the bottom of the Great Recession, there were six unemployed workers for every job opening. Unemployed college grads found themselves working in the food services and retail trade. In addition, older workers and unskilled or undereducated foreign workers took many of the menial jobs usually reserved for youth. In sum, teens were crowded out of a scarce employment market.
The question remains. Will this renaissance in labor participation for today's teens continue, or is it simply a flash in the pan? I hope that the Labor Department is wrong, and America's youth will find their summer jobs as fulfilling as mine was.
Bill Schmick is the founding partner of Onota Partners, Inc., in the Berkshires. His forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Onota Partners Inc. (OPI). None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-413-347-2401 or email him at email@example.com.
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