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Labor Shortage Means This Group Is in Demand for Summer Jobs

Teens are in the driver's seat, with the ability to hold out for jobs with higher wages
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted May 27, 2023 11:30 AM CDT
Teens Are in the Driver's Seat for This Year's Summer Jobs
In this undated photo, Billy Rutherford, 17, is seen in Wildwood, New Jersey. The teen works at Morey's Piers amusement park as a game operator.   (Sally Rutherford via AP)

Teens have long been vital to filling out the summertime staffs of restaurants, ice cream stands, amusement parks, and camps. Now, thanks to one of the tightest labor markets in decades, they have even more sway, with an array of jobs to choose from at ever higher wages, per the AP. To ease the labor crunch, some states are moving to roll back restrictions to let teens work more hours and, in some cases, more hazardous jobs—much to the chagrin of labor rights groups, who see it as a troubling trend. Economists say there are other ways to expand the workforce without putting more of a burden on kids, including by allowing more legal immigration.

In April, nearly 34% of Americans ages 16 to 19 had jobs, according to government data. That compares with 30% four years ago, the last pre-pandemic summer. More jobs are available for those who want them: There are roughly 1.6 jobs open for every person who's unemployed, per the Labor Department. In normal times, that ratio is about 1:1. Hourly pay jumped about 5% in April from a year ago at restaurants, retailers, and amusement parks, the industries likely to employ teens. Before the pandemic, pay in these industries typically rose no more than 3% annually. At Funtown Splashtown USA, an amusement park in southern Maine, teens play a critical role in keeping the attractions open, which isn't as easy as it used to be.

Manager Cory Hutchinson anticipates hiring about 350 workers this summer, including many local high schoolers, compared with more than 500 in past summers. "We literally do not have enough people to staff the place seven days a week and into the evenings," he says. This summer, the site will only be open six days a week and will close at 6pm instead of 9pm. That labor shortage means that teens can now be choosier. "After COVID settled down, everyone was being paid more," 18-year-old Maxen Lucas, a graduating senior at Lincoln Academy in Maine, says. He had his first job at 15 as a summer camp dishwasher, followed by a stint as a grocery bagger before getting into landscaping. For many teens, however, the point of a summer job doesn't have to be about finding the highest pay available.

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"Having a job is just so I can sustain myself, be more independent, not rely on my parents too much," says Christopher Au, 19, who's been dishing out ice cream at a JP Licks in Boston for the past few months. New Jersey passed a law in 2022 allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to work up to 50 hours per week during the summer, when the state's shore economy swells with tourists; the previous limit was 40 hours per week. Other states are considering a variety of proposals to expand teens' role in the workplace. Child welfare advocates, however, worry the measures represent a coordinated push to scale back hard-won protections for minors. Economists say instead that allowing more legal immigration is a key solution to workforce shortages, noting that's been central to the country's ability to grow for years in the face of an aging population.

(More teens stories.)

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