The luckiest workers in America? Teenagers

The big bump 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. PHOTO: NYTIMES

(NYTIMES) - Roller coaster operators and lemonade slingers at Kennywood amusement park, a Pittsburgh summer staple, will not have to buy their own uniforms this year. Those with a high school diploma will also earn US$13 (S$17) as a starting wage - up from US$9 last year - and new hires are receiving free season passes for themselves and their families.

The big bump in pay and perks for Kennywood's seasonal workforce, where nearly half of employees are under the age of 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 has not been this high since 2008, before the unfolding global financial crisis sent employment plummeting. About 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 last month 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 labour market.

"A rising tide isn't lifting all boats," said Dr Alicia Sasser Modestino, an economist at Northeastern University who studies labour 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, Pennsylvania, Kennywood's summer hiring push has meant a chance to earn more towards the car she is hoping to buy. 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 US$9 - so when she found out the park was lifting pay to US$13 an hour, she was thrilled.

"I love it," she said. She does not even mind having to walk backwards on the carousel to check that everyone is riding safely, although it can be disorienting. "After you see the little kids and they give you high-fives, it doesn't matter at all."

It is not just Kennywood paying up. Small businesses in a database compiled by the payroll platform Gusto have been raising teen wages in the service sector jobs in recent months, said Mr 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 this year and have spent the first part of last month 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 labour at a time when demand is rebounding and job openings are going unfilled.

Health concerns and childcare 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 labour 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 Mr Will Moore, a manager at Spanky's Clam Shack and Seaside Saloon in Hyannis, Massachusetts.

"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.

A roller coaster at Kennywood amusement park in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, on May 29, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

With temperatures rising in Henderson, Kentucky, officials were worried they would not 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 US$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 did not open last year because of the pandemic, so there were no lifeguards to recruit from last year, 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 US$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.

The city's director of parks and recreation Trace Stevens said: "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."

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 US$300. Applebee's offered an "Apps for Apps" deal in which applicants who were interviewed received a free appetiser voucher. Restaurants and petrol 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 have led the gains this year, even as black teens have added comparatively few and Hispanic teens actually lost jobs. That is 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, Dr Sasser Modestino said. Plus, while places like Cape Cod and suburban neighbourhoods begin to boom, some urban centres 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 Mr 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.

Dr Sasser Modestino's research has found that the long-running decline in teen work has partly come from a shift towards college preparation 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 favourable labour market for the long haul, said Dr Anthony P. Carnevale, director of Georgetown University's Centre 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 were not 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.

Shaylah Bentley, 18, works at Kennywood amusement park in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, on May 29, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Still, Dr Sasser Modestino pointed out that a lot of the hiring happening now is for summer jobs, which have less chance of interfering with school. And there may be upsides. For people like Bailley, it means an opportunity to save for textbooks and tuition down the road. She would 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 is earning will allow her to decorate her dorm room at Slippery Rock University. She is 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."

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