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It’s a pretty good time to find a summer job for Minnesota teens — but fewer of them are

Teenagers have been rejoining the workforce since the Great Recession, but the share of teens in the workforce hasn’t rebounded to early 2000s levels.

fast food workers
Teens’ participation in the workforce dropped significantly during the Great Recession, when unemployment in the workforce as a whole was as high as 8 percent, and those teens who wanted to get a job had to compete with older, more experienced workers — even for entry-level jobs.
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

School’s just about out for Minnesota high schoolers. Doesn’t that mean it’s time to go look for a summer job?

For some Minnesota teens, the answer is no.

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Though it’s up a bit in recent years, the share of Minnesota teens in the workforce has dipped over time, from 59 percent in 2001 to below 50 percent for the last 11 years, following a long-term decline since the 1990s, according to data from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey analyzed by Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED).

That’s likely not helping employers in teen-heavy sectors, who are finding workers scarce in a tight labor market in Minnesota.

Out of the workforce

Teens are a more fickle part of the workforce than older people, said Oriane Casale, the assistant director of DEED’s labor market information office.

“Not all youth absolutely need jobs, so they’re very sensitive to market conditions,” she said. “Basically if they see their friends working and they can easily find a job, then they’ll work. Otherwise they might not even look for a job.”

Teens’ participation in the workforce dropped significantly during the Great Recession, when unemployment in Minnesota’s overall workforce was as high as 8 percent, and those teens who wanted to get a job had to compete with older, more experienced workers — even for entry-level jobs. (Under Minnesota law, 14 is old enough to work some jobs, with restrictions.)

At the lowest point, in 2012, just 37 percent of teenagers worked. Teen unemployment, which includes anybody seeking a job, peaked at 21 percent in 2009 and 2010.

Share of Minnesotans working
Source: Current Population Survey, compiled by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development

Teenagers have been joining the workforce since then: in 2018, 48 percent of them worked. But even with many entry-level jobs paying $10 an hour or more and a tight labor market, the share of teens in the workforce hasn’t rebounded to early 2000s levels.

“Teens are making out pretty OK. Certainly better than they were 10 years ago,” Casale said. “If they’re waiting tables, if they’re working in retail, they’re making (close to) $10 an hour.”

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In the third quarter of the year, which encompasses summer, more than 20 percent of amusement and recreation, clothing and accessory and food and beverage workers are teens, Casale said.

Some employers in these industries say they’re working harder than usual to find teens to fill open jobs.

Now hiring

Valleyfair hires as many as 2,000 people to work in its amusement park in Shakopee each summer season, said Melissa Lutz, the park’s human resources director. Many of them are teens working in games, merchandise, and as ride operators and lifeguards.

“There’s a now hiring sign on every building,” Lutz said. “Every drive through that you go through, every store that you walk into, absolutely everybody’s looking for talent.”

In order to attract more ride operators, who have to be at least 18, the park recently raised ride operator wages from $12 to $14 per hour.

“People come to Valleyfair to ride the rides, so if they’re closed, that’s not a fun time,” Lutz said.

It’s not just the tight job market, though, Lutz said — teens seem to be busier.

“Applications are down, and also I think the teens aren’t available to work as much as they used to be,” she said. “In addition to not seeing as many applications, we also are seeing applications coming in (for teens) who need much more flexible schedules.”

Valleyfair isn’t the only employer emphasizing flexibility in a tight job market.

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“We work around your sports, we work around church, we work around any schedule,” said Jennifer Ramey, director of talent acquisition at Fourteen Foods, which operates 30 Dairy Queens in Minnesota.

The YMCA Twin Cities is in the midst of a campaign to hire lifeguards and swim instructors for the summer — jobs frequently held by teens.

“The extracurriculars kids are doing, sports year round, all the activities, family responsibilities, school, and then of course time with their friends, they certainly need that ability to be flexible,” said Missy Keaton, talent acquisition manager.

Since the organization frequently works with teens, it has a natural pipeline to pull from, she said. But, there’s lots of openings.

“We have 400 openings for swim instructors and lifeguards. There’s such an extreme need for it,” she said.

Long-term benefits

Teens don’t just benefit from cash in their pockets every pay period when they work. Research has found working is good for teens long-term — to a point.

A 2014 study in Research in the Sociology of Work that followed a group of teenagers found that 15-year-olds who worked year-round were more likely to have jobs at ages 17 to 21. Teen workers also had higher incomes a few years later, at ages 17 to 25.

But those benefits only extend so far: if the teens worked too many hours, the positive benefits of working receded.

And if working is good for teens, not all Minnesota teens are reaping the benefits to the same degree. In Minnesota, white teenagers are more likely to be employed than teens of color, a likely contributor to Minnesota’s income and wealth gaps on-the-whole.

54 percent of Hispanic and Latino and white teens, ages 16 to 19, were in the labor force in 2017, according to Census figures, compared to 49 percent of Asian teens, 46 percent of black teens, 38 percent of Native American teens.