When hiring general managers for his Texas-based fast-food chain Layne’s Chicken Fingers, Garrett Reed typically looks for people with seven to 10 years of work experience. But this year he ended up promoting 19-year-old Jason Cabrera, at a salary of $50,000 plus bonuses.
“Even my parents think I am too young to be a GM, but I don’t let my age be a factor in anything,” Cabrera said.
Cabrera is among 5.9m 16 to 19-year-olds who are leveraging a shortage of adult workers to find jobs this summer. Teens accounted for 36 per cent of new hires in June, compared with an average of 10 per cent during the same period from 2017 to 2019, according to an analysis of US labour data by the small business payroll provider Gusto.
“The more experienced workers, they disappeared during Covid,” Reed said. “It’s forced us into taking younger people who can step up and fill those roles.”
Fewer American teenagers are without work this summer than any time over the past six decades, labour department data shows, in a sign of how teens are seizing what economists say is a rare opportunity to fill higher-paying positions usually reserved for adults.
The wages of teens working service sector jobs jumped 13 per cent in the past two months, according to a survey by Gusto.
The trend is part of a larger power shift between low-wage workers and their employers during the pandemic. Reopening businesses are desperate to hire staff as continuing fears about the Covid crisis, a lack of childcare, and a temporary expansion of unemployment insurance keep many one-time waiters, cashiers, and Uber drivers from re-entering the workforce.
Those who are willing to return to work are leveraging the competition to demand higher wages and better working conditions.
Companies that traditionally shied away from hiring minors because of state mandates for employment permits and limited working hours have embraced them as older, more experienced workers remain in short supply.
“Teens are the name of the game in hiring, and they have been able to dictate the terms of their employment,” said Gusto economist Luke Pardue.
The number of working American teens fell steadily for decades before the pandemic, as resume-building volunteer work and college preparation programmes gained popularity. But Covid eliminated many of those opportunities or forced them online, said Northeastern University economist Alicia Sasser Modestino.
Young people who were already working lost their jobs en masse last summer as the leisure and hospitality businesses that typically hire them buckled under Covid restrictions. That has made many of them eager to work this summer, while others are attracted by unusually high wages and generous incentives employers have dangled to lure workers.
“Teens are ready to jump in and fill those jobs, and employers, out of desperation, are lowering their requirements,” Modestino said.
Alonzo Soliz, the owner of a Tropical Smoothie Cafe franchise in Cedar Park, Texas, says about 40 of his 45 employees are teenagers and he is still looking to hire more.
“They come in and they are asking for $10, $12 an hour, no weekends, and they have no experience,” Soliz said. “What’s tough is a lot of times we have to pay them that because they will jump next door for a dollar more.”
Last week Soliz interviewed one teen with experience working at a pizza parlour for a shift leader position. He made what he thought was a competitive offer — about $15 an hour plus paid time off and up to $2,000 in tuition reimbursement — but never heard back. He suspects she got a better offer.
The fraught labour market has not raised wages for all teens equally, however. Young people of colour still have a relatively high unemployment rate compared with white teens. Many have also been shut out of work geographically, as low-wage jobs have returned first to suburban areas and vacation towns with disproportionately white populations over urban areas, Pardue said.
For those who have cashed in, their windfall may be limited. Adult workers are expected to re-enter the labour force en masse in September as expanded unemployment benefits expire and in-person schooling resumes.
But some business owners are hoping to hold on to their youngest workers. Toni Reese, the owner of Brighton, Michigan, speciality shop Running Lab, said despite never having hired anyone under 30 before the pandemic, the store hired five teens this summer and is looking for more.
“They are our hungriest employees, and they are a lot of fun,” Reese says.