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Teens are having their best summer since 1953 — for employment

Biden touts May jobs report as unemployment dips
Biden says U.S. is "on the move again" as unemployment dips 00:24

Alonzo Soliz said he's noticing something new about the job applications he's been getting for his two smoothie cafes in Texas: Most of them are from teenagers. 

"We're probably averaging five to seven applications a day at both of our locations," Soliz told CBS MoneyWatch. "It seems like every application that comes in is from a teen who has never had a job before."

Soliz said he's hoping to hire a few older workers — those in their 20s and even 30s — to fill more manager-type roles, but he's not receiving as many applications from this age group as he did prior to the pandemic. "Whenever an application comes in, I'm hoping it's someone older with experience, but it's just not happening right now," Soliz said. 

Welcome to the best year for teen workers since 1953, the year when Dwight Eisenhower was sworn in as president and the first Corvette rolled off the Chevrolet factory floor. The 2021 surge in teens seeking jobs has provided a bright spot for employers in sectors such as restaurants and retail, which have been struggling to regain workers they furloughed in the height of the pandemic. The wave of teenage applicants also marks a departure from what has been a long-term trend of more teens opting to enroll in summer classes or other academic endeavors, over working a summer job. 

"Over the long term we've seen this decline in the teen labor force participation rate" due partly to the pressures on teens to engage in academic work in the summer, said Luke Pardue, an economist at payroll provider Gusto. 

Alonzo Soliz, owner of two Tropical Smoothie Cafes in Texas, says most job applications he's receiving are from teens, many often searching for their first job. Applications from older workers, he says, have yet to return to the same rate as prior to the pandemic. Soliz is planning on opening a third cafe next to a high school — to attract both customers and potential employees.  Alonzo Soliz

But this year, Pardue said, older workers in restaurants and service-industry jobs "are either unwilling or unable to come back to the labor force. We've seen teens step in to fill that gap."

The jobless rate for teens dropped to 9.6% in May, the lowest since November 1953, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Prior to the pandemic, the jobless rate for teens typically hovered between 12% to 14%. But it spiked as high as 32% during the pandemic, when businesses that typically hire teens — restaurants and retailers — were shuttered due to state lockdown orders.

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One reason for the turnaround could be due to higher pay, with companies bumping up entry-level wages to attract job applicants. Wages for teens in service-sector jobs have increased 8% in the last two months alone, according to an analysis from Gusto of small businesses that use its payroll services. For instance, jobs for teens working in tourism have increased from about $9.30 an hour in March to $13.50 in May, Gusto found.

Meanwhile, there's a debate brewing over why older workers aren't returning to the job market at the same pace as prior to the pandemic. Some Republican governors have blamed enhanced unemployment benefits, which provide an extra $300 per week to jobless workers, with 25 GOP-led states cutting the benefits beginning on Saturday.

But Pardue and other economists believe the issue is more complicated — a combination of lack of childcare and health concerns about the ongoing pandemic may be keeping at least some older workers on the sidelines, for instance.

Reopening coincides with summer

Also, businesses are reopening and expanding their capacity just as teens are ending their school year —the typical time when high school and college students search for work during the summer months.

One of those teens is 16-year-old Julian Lamprecht. After seeing a "We're hiring" sign at a Walmart near his family's home in Connecticut, he applied for a job there — and was hired a day later at a starting wage of $15 an hour. 

"I was really looking for stuff to do in the summer," Lamprecht said, noting that this will be his first job. "I play soccer a lot, but wanted to make some money on the side."

He added, "I'm surprised at how quickly it went."

While Lamprecht is planning on using his wages to buy a Sony PS5 game console, he said part of the attraction of getting a job was to "get out of the house."

Getting out of the house and away from Zoom calls may be an attraction for many teens searching for work after a year of remote or hybrid school, but remote learning has also brought more flexibility to teens' schedules. Soliz of Tropical Smoothie Cafe noted some of his teen employees have had shorter school days, enabling them to start their shifts earlier. He doesn't expect that to continue, however, given that more schools are returning to in-person instruction. 

Signs of inequity among teens

To be sure, some teens are looking for work because of economic necessity, especially if their parents are struggling with lost income or job losses, noted Linda Rodriguez, who oversees JPMorgan Chase's Summer Youth Employment program. 

"Low-income families are depending on teens to bring home more money," Rodriguez said. "We've heard from students that they are working to pay for school and school expenses."

But even when it comes to teens returning to the job market, the rising tide may not be lifting all boats equally, Rodriguez added. For instance, the jobless rate for Black teens stands at 12.1%, or more than two percentage points higher than the overall rate for teens. 

An equitable recovery would require "efforts to disrupt that," Rodriguez added.

Jobs help teens develop their skills and can smooth the path to full-time employment, Rodriguez said. They also help teens improve their school attendance rates, engagement and wellness, which are among the reasons why JPMorgan has invested $17 million over a five-year span to help U.S. cities increase the number of young people gaining summer work experiences, she added. 

Meanwhile, Tropical Smoothie Cafe's Soliz said he's working on opening a third cafe — next to a high school.

"We do that to draw the guests in and also for employment," Soliz said. "Without the kids, I don't have a business."

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