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Have Minnesota teens returned to the workforce?

As summer approaches, a look into the labor market for a lifeguard, lawn mower, or teen dishwasher.
lawn mower

This story was originally published by Twin Cities Business.

For many of us, a fast food or retail or summer camp job initiated us into the workforce. One of the hallmarks of the pandemic period were severe labor shortages at businesses that employ high school-age kids, especially seasonally. While youth employment has bounced back, according to government data, many employers who traditionally hired teens still experience a challenging job market, which may be connected to a demographic drop in the number of adolescents in the U.S.

TCB spoke to several prominent youth employers for insight into whether the stabilizing youth employment market portended an easier summer for hiring.

Border Foods operates around 240 Taco Bells across the country, including all 90 in Minnesota and, employing 7,000 people. Its under-25 worker cohort has hovered around 53% over the last few years, company president Aaron Engler says—even during the pandemic.

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But the company’s workforce felt the impact. Stores closed early or even stayed closed for days at a time during the worst of COVID labor shortages. Now, staffing has returned almost to pre-pandemic levels, but employers had to make concessions to entice people to stay, Engler says. Employees received a “COVID bonus”; hours became more flexible; pay rose; trips to Mexico or Valleyfair were offered as perks. For youth employees, scholarships have been a “huge incentive,” Engler says.

Pre-pandemic, the percentage of 16- to 19-year-olds working part- or full-time hovered around 30%. Now, nearly a third are employed, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor and Statistics. A Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development analysis shows peak teen employment (every July) back to 38.4% in 2022, right where it was in 2019. Its low point was 32.3% in 2020.

Cote Family Destinations, which operates Grand View Lodge and camps Lincoln and Lake Hubert near Brainerd, is a major seasonal employer of youth. “We rely on them,” says director of human resources Merrick Dresnin.

When COVID first hit in 2020, the company cut down from hundreds of employees to around 35, but by 2021, it saw a record number of bookings at its lodge, necessitating a return to traditional staffing levels. The camps also returned and quickly filled in 2022. The company is constantly recruiting; the challenge lies in incentivizing youth workers to get a job at the resort rather than the Subway down the street that’s offering higher pay.

Cote specializes in hiring 14- to-16-year-olds for their first job. During COVID, this age cohort’s return to work wasn’t up to the teens themselves—it was up to parents, many of whom were worried about exposing their children to illness. Ramping up recruitment efforts at schools became key. International workers with H-2B and J-1 visitor visas were able to fill gaps.

Like Border Foods, Cote offered a range of incentives besides pay. Housing is provided, along with flexible hours and personal and professional development.

While Cote recruits in greater Minnesota, the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board (MPRB) hires youth in marginalized communities in the Twin Cities. With about 500 teen staffers last year, its programs are still ramping back up, says MaryLynn Pulscher, environmental education manager and youth recruiter for the parks, who manages the Teen Teamworks program.

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One challenge both the parks and Cote face: some jobs are more desirable than others. The parks contend with a national shortage of lifeguards. Cote has trouble recruiting and retaining dishwashers. The MPRB incentivizes with more hours, up to 28 hours a week, over the summer. Teen workers are also offered professional development, a Friday fun day, mentorship, and flexibility.

Pulscher surveys her Teen Teamworks employees about how they use their earnings, and many are not working merely because parents insist they stay busy. Many buy games or other entertainment items, Pulscher says but “almost half mentioned helping support their family.”