Roller-coaster operators and lemonade slingers at Kennywood amusement park, a Pittsburgh summer staple, won’t have to buy their own uniforms this year. Those with a high school diploma will also earn $13 as a starting wage — up from $9 last year — and new hires are receiving free season passes for themselves and their families.
The big pop in pay and perks for Kennywood’s seasonal work force, where nearly half of employees are under 18, echoes what is happening around the country as employers scramble to hire waiters, receptionists and other service workers to satisfy surging demand as the economy reopens.
For American teenagers looking for work, this may be the best summer in years.
As companies try to go from hardly staffed to fully staffed practically overnight, teens appear to be winning out more than any demographic group. The share of 16- to 19-year-olds who are working hasn’t been this high since 2008, before the unfolding global financial crisis sent employment plummeting. Roughly 256,000 teens in that age group gained employment in April — counting for the vast majority of newly employed people — a significant change after teenagers suffered sharp job losses at the beginning of the pandemic. Whether the trend can hold up will become clearer when jobs data for May is released on Friday.
It could come with a downside. Some educators warn that jobs could distract from school. And while employment can itself offer learning opportunities, the most recent wave of hiring has been led by white teens, raising concerns that young people from minority groups might miss out on a hot summer labor market.
“A rising tide isn’t lifting all boats,” said Alicia Sasser Modestino, an economist at Northeastern University who studies labor markets for young people. Still, “there could be some really good opportunities for youth that we haven’t seen in a long time — that’s good.”
For Hayley Bailley, a 17-year-old from Irwin, Pa., Kennywood’s summer hiring push has meant a chance to earn more toward the car she’s hoping to buy. Ms. Bailley, a recent high school graduate, was excited to take a job running an antique roller coaster and snapping people into paddle boats when she thought it paid $9 — so when she found out the park was lifting pay to $13 an hour, she was thrilled.
“I love it,” she said. She doesn’t even mind having to walk backward on the carousel to check that everyone is riding safely, though it can be disorienting. “After you see the little kids and they give you high-fives, it doesn’t matter at all.”
It’s not just Kennywood paying up. Small businesses in a database compiled by the payroll platform Gusto have been raising teen wages in service sector jobs in recent months, said Luke Pardue, an economist at the company. Teens took a hit at the onset of the pandemic but got back to their pre-coronavirus wage levels in March 2021 and have spent the first part of May seeing their wages accelerate above that.
“It’s great that the economy and small businesses have this relief valve,” Mr. Pardue said. “From the perspective of gaining experience and also making money, it’s a positive development.”
For employers, teens may be a newly critical source of ready labor at a time when demand is rebounding and job openings are going unfilled.
Health concerns and child care challenges seem to be keeping some older workers from quickly taking jobs. Expanded unemployment insurance benefits may also be giving workers the financial cushion they need to hold out for better opportunities. Compounding those challenges is that the United States has been issuing far fewer immigrant work visas during the pandemic thanks to travel and other restrictions, so employees from abroad who usually fill temporary help, agricultural and seasonal positions are missing from the labor market.
The hiring crunch can be felt around the country.
Restaurants up and down Cape Cod have long relied on seasonal workers to prepare lobster rolls, tend bar and bus tables. But it has become hard to fill jobs with fewer workers coming from abroad and rising housing prices keeping domestic seasonal workers away, said Will Moore, a manager at Spanky’s Clam Shack and Seaside Saloon in Hyannis, Mass.
“I think everyone’s hoping that when the college kids get here and the high school kids graduate, that will put Band-Aids over the holes,” he said.
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With temperatures rising in Henderson, Ky., officials were worried they wouldn’t have enough lifeguards to open their one public pool for the summer.
In mid-May, they had around six applicants for the job, which paid a starting salary of $8.50 an hour; the city needs at least eight lifeguards on duty a day to run the full pool safely. The limited interest reflected a perfect storm: the pool didn’t open last year because of the pandemic, so there were no lifeguards to recruit from 2020, and teen workers were lured by higher wages at local fast-food and big box retail jobs.
The city government on May 25 raised the starting pay to $10 an hour and dropped the minimum age for applicants from 16 years old to 15. It seems to have worked: More teenagers applied and the city has started interviewing candidates for the open positions.
“Between 2020 and 2021, it seems like a lot of the retail starting salaries really jumped up, and we just kind of had to follow suit if we wanted to be competitive and get qualified applicants,” said Trace Stevens, the city’s director of parks and recreation.
Teens are earning more than just fatter paychecks as employers try to lure applicants. Workers at Kennywood are receiving season park passes for themselves and three family members — a bonus worth around $300. Applebee’s offered an “Apps for Apps” deal in which applicants who were interviewed received a free appetizer voucher. Restaurants and gas stations across the country are offering signing bonuses.
But the perks and better pay may not reach everyone. White teens lost employment heavily at the beginning of the pandemic, and they’ve led the gains in 2021, even as Black teens have added comparatively few and Hispanic teens actually lost jobs. That’s continuing a long-running disparity in which white teens work in much greater numbers, and the gap could worsen if the current trajectory continues.
More limited access to transportation is one factor that may hold minority teens back from work, Ms. Sasser Modestino said. Plus, while places like Cape Cod and suburban neighborhoods begin to boom, some urban centers with public transit remain short on foot traffic, which may be disadvantaging teens who live in cities.
“We haven’t seen the demand yet,” said Joseph McLaughlin, research and evaluation director at the Boston Private Industry Council, which helps to place students into paid internships and helps others to apply to private employers, like grocery stores.
Ms. Sasser Modestino’s research has found that the long-running decline in teen work has partly come from a shift toward college prep and internships, but that many teens still need and want jobs for economic reasons. Yet the types of jobs teens have traditionally held have dwindled — Blockbuster gigs are a thing of the past — and older workers increasingly fill them.
Teenagers who are benefiting now may not be able to count on a favorable labor market for the long haul, said Anthony P. Carnevale, the director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.
“There may be what will surely be a brief positive effect, as young people can move into a lot of jobs where adults have receded for whatever reason,” he said. “It’s going to be temporary, because we always take care of the adults first.”
Educators have voiced a different concern: That today’s plentiful and prosperous teen jobs might be distracting students from their studies.
When in-class education restarted last August at Torrington High School, which serves 330 students in a small city in Wyoming, principal Chase Christensen found that about 10 of his older students weren’t returning. They had taken full-time jobs, including working night shifts at a nursing home and working at a gravel pit, and were reluctant to give up the money. Five have since dropped out of or failed to complete high school.
“They had gotten used to the pay of a full-time worker,” Mr. Christensen said. “They’re getting jobs that usually high schoolers don’t get.”
If better job prospects in the near term overtake teenagers’ plans for additional education or training, that could also spell trouble. Economic research consistently finds that those who manage to get through additional training have better-paying careers.
Still, Ms. Sasser Modestino pointed out that a lot of the hiring happening now was for summer jobs, which have less chance of interfering with school. And there may be upsides. For people like Ms. Bailley, it means an opportunity to save for textbooks and tuition down the road. She’d like to go to community college to complete prerequisites, and then pursue an engineering degree.
“I’ve always been interested in robots, I love programming and coding,” she said, explaining that learning how roller coasters work lines up with her academic interests.
Shaylah Bentley, 18 and a new season pass taker at Kennywood, said the higher-than-expected wage she’s earning will allow her to decorate her dorm room at Slippery Rock University. She’s a rising sophomore this year, studying exercise science.
“I wanted to save up money for school and expenses,” she said. “And have something to do this summer.”