It’s a teenage dream. Unemployment among teens is near its lowest level in decades as business owners look to solve a hiring crunch. We talk to WSJ’s Kathryn Dill about the bargaining power teens have in today’s job market.
– Teens Take Up More Jobs, and More Pay, in Tight Labor Market
– Teen Babysitters Are Charging $30 an Hour Now, Because They Can
– Why Workers Can’t Get Enough Hours, Even in a Jobs Boom
– Why Is Everyone Quitting?
This transcript was prepared by a transcription service. This version may not be in its final form and may be updated.
Ryan Knutson: One of the most popular roller coasters at Kennywood Amusement Park, outside Pittsburgh is the Exterminator.
Emma Stacey: You like basically go up a few Hills, go down a few hills. It's really dark, and then for most of it, you're just spinning the entire time.
Ryan Knutson: Emma Stacey is 19 years old. She manages the crew that operates the ride. Passengers sit inside a giant spinning rat, trying to dodge robotic exterminators.
Emma Stacey: It just basically sounds like a guy like screaming, "Exterminate," and then you just keep going.
Ryan Knutson: That sounds awful. I'm going to be honest.
Emma Stacey: Honestly, I think it's amazing.
Ryan Knutson: Emma's been working here four summers now, and this year she got a nice pay bump. She went from making 9.25 an hour last year to 14.25 an hour this year. Have you ever been paid this much for a summer job?
Emma Stacey: I have not.
Ryan Knutson: So, what does it feel like?
Emma Stacey: It feels really good. I really like having money.
Ryan Knutson: Emma, isn't the only teen raking it in these days. Here's our colleague, Kathryn Dill.
Kathryn Dill: What we're seeing in the broader labor market right now is that employers are so hungry for people to hire that they are having to go beyond the typical pool of talent that they've been drawing on for the last several years.
Ryan Knutson: Which means the teen labor market is red hot. Employers are jacking up wages and adding perks.
Kathryn Dill: If you're a teenager, you have some power right now in the job market. Employers aren't just willing to hire you. Many of them really need you.
Ryan Knutson: Welcome to The Journal, our show about money, business and power. I'm Ryan Knutson. It's Tuesday, June 14th. Coming up on the show, the booming job market for teens. Many summers ago, before I started doing this podcast, I was a teenager making smoothies at a Jamba Juice in Oregon. As for my colleague, Kathryn?
Kathryn Dill: I worked in the AV Department of the public library in the town I grew up in Illinois. Yeah.
Ryan Knutson: So, you were a huge nerd?
Kathryn Dill: A huge nerd. Yeah. I worked my way through all of the departments of the public library, but AV was my primary gig. So, I checked things in and out. DVD cleaning was very big in those days, in the early (inaudible). It was a great job.
Ryan Knutson: So, you were actually like the cool kid, because you had access to all of the library's movies.
Kathryn Dill: Exactly. I could get a new DVD as soon as it was returned, and I could also clear fines.
Ryan Knutson: Oh, wow. So, you were definitely like the most popular kid in the library, at least?
Kathryn Dill: Yeah. Unchecked raw power. Yeah.
Ryan Knutson: When I was working at Jamba Juice, it was just a part-time thing to get extra money for teenagery things. But that's not the case for everyone.
Kathryn Dill: It's worth noting that some teens are working full-time, and that's their full-time focus, and many of them are contributing to household incomes.
Ryan Knutson: Right now, the labor market for teenagers is the best it's been in more than half a century. For the second summer in a row. Teen unemployment is around 10%, which would be high for the overall workforce, but for the teen workforce.
Kathryn Dill: The last time it was that low, it was 1953. To put that in context, you could get a hamburger for 15 cents. If you had dropped some coins into a jukebox, you might have heard Patti Page singing, How Much Was That Doggy in the Window?
Patti Page: How much is that doggy in the window?
Ryan Knutson: I've never heard of that song in my life.
Kathryn Dill: You're missing out. You could have borrowed it on a CD from your local public library's EV department.
Ryan Knutson: But since then teens have been having a harder and harder time finding a job.
Kathryn Dill: So, teen unemployment has been climbing overall for decades. Like general unemployment, it kind of goes up when there's a recession and then it comes back down. But the broad trend for decades has been upwards.
Speaker 5: Goodbye to the summer job. Well, it turns out that fewer teens are working over summer vacation.
Speaker 6: Since 1985, the percentage of teens in the workforce has gone way down.
Speaker 7: In 1979, 60% of teenagers were working. In 2018, only 35% of teens are working. That to me seems …
Ryan Knutson: Kathryn says, there's a few reasons why teen unemployment kept getting worse.
Kathryn Dill: One of them is automation. Many of the types of jobs that teens have held traditionally, cashier or the example, a lot of people like to give is video store clerk, those jobs just don't exist anymore. In the places where they do exist, there are fewer of them. Also, in some of those decades, we saw some recent immigrants also finding themselves in jobs that teens might have previously held, which was a shift.
Ryan Knutson: How did teens feel about that?
Kathryn Dill: Well, a significant thing is that in the years that the labor market was changing in these ways, teens lives were also changing. So, when we talk about how teens aren't working, what we mean is that they haven't been working for money in ways that would be captured by federal data. They are, many of them, busier than ever. They do more coursework. They do unpaid internships. A lot of them do altruistic, and also resume- building volunteer work now.
Ryan Knutson: But for teens who have wanted to keep working, there have been some periods when it was especially hard. Like, after the 2008 financial crisis, teen unemployment took off.
Kathryn Dill: It reached almost 27%, and it came down, but it did stay really high for a number of years after that. The big reason for that is that, in those years, low wage and hourly jobs, retail, food service, the types of jobs that teens often held were being held by adults who had lost other jobs, and not been able to get rehired. In many cases, many of those adults had multiple of those jobs, and so teens were really squeezed out.
Ryan Knutson: Teen unemployment stayed high for a long time, and when the pandemic hit things only got worse.
Kathryn Dill: Teen unemployment skyrocketed. There are a lot of clear reasons for that. The places that a lot of teens work, restaurants, pools, summer camps, stores, those places, most of them were closed, so we saw higher unemployment rates among teens than ever,
Ryan Knutson: By April 2020, nearly one-third of all young people aged 16 to 19 were jobless in the US, a historic high, but then last year, something started to change.
Kathryn Dill: As things started to open up and return, we saw a few conditions come into focus. The other things that teens were doing with their time hadn't returned in the ways that hourly work had, so they had this newfound time.
Ryan Knutson: Newfound time that they could fill with paid work. The other thing that happened was that a bunch of adults were quitting, creating a labor shortage.
Kathryn Dill: We've seen what some people have referred to as the great resignation play out at different parts of the labor market. We've seen folks, many of them who had blue collar or hourly jobs upskilling into jobs that are more akin to office jobs, but might be performed at home. We saw households capitalizing on newfound savings, rethinking whether both parents wanted to be working necessarily, if there were young kids at home. We saw people making a lot of these big changes
Ryan Knutson: And that created a jobs bonanza for teens.
Kathryn Dill: It meant that those help wanted signs, were speaking right to them, in a lot of cases.
Ryan Knutson: Why would employers want to hire teenagers?
Kathryn Dill: Well, many employers are really desperate for workers. They've turned to other parts of the pool to find people to fill these jobs, and in many cases it's, employing teens is how they've kept their businesses open.
Ryan Knutson: After the break, teens go back to work, but not without some demands. Teen workers are having one of the best summers since the Eisenhower era. Employers are desperate to fill positions, which means that some teens are finding they hold some negotiating power. A few weeks ago, 17-year old Malachi Allen saw a job posting at a Smoothie King in Dallas. He got on the phone with the manager.
Malachi Allen: In my mind, it was like, I just wanted the max pay. I knew I already had previous work experience from my former job.
Ryan Knutson: The gig advertised nine to $11 an hour. When the manager offered him nine, Malachi played hardball, reasoning that he'd already had experience with a cash register.
Malachi Allen: I told her I wanted 11 and she asked why. I told her, the whole point, I don't want to just plateau or get paid less or even the same amount of money from a year previous. So, obviously I wanted more money from this year, and my last job, I was getting paid $9.50 cents, at that time.
Ryan Knutson: Asking for more money was exhilarating.
Malachi Allen: It kind of made me feel a bit of like a businessman. It's pretty cool. This is an adult. I'm speaking to the general manager and here is me, barely even 17 trying to negotiate the highest pay I could possibly get.
Ryan Knutson: It worked. Not only did Malachi get the job, he also got $11 an hour. He started last week, and the job comes with some nice perks.
Malachi Allen: It's close to home. (inaudible) free smoothie, so I don't have to worry about spending money for a lunch, and I just get a little extra money in my pocket. So, it was all around a perfect opportunity for me.
Ryan Knutson: Our colleague, Kathryn says that what Malachi is experiencing is not unique. Teens are getting higher wages in all kinds of jobs.
Kathryn Dill: We're also seeing stories of teen babysitters who are charging in some cases, $30 an hour now.
Ryan Knutson: Wow.
Kathryn Dill: Because childcare is also in short supply for sort of on- demand childcare for parents who just want to go out for an evening. So, we're just seeing them faced with a much better array of options than they might have had a couple of years ago.
Ryan Knutson: So, you've been talking to some teenagers. What are they saying to you about why they are deciding to go back into the job market?
Kathryn Dill: Well, a lot of the teens I talked with share these really logical reasons. They want the money, but they also want skills, that confidence handling a bunch of different responsibilities, showing up on time. Those are all things that teens can pick up, even in some of these hourly jobs that they might not be thinking of as a career launching pad, they're still gaining those soft skills. For some of them, it's a great to spend time with other people and other people your age, and that's something a lot of them have been really starved of during the pandemic.
Ryan Knutson: What are companies discovering about these teenagers that they're hiring? Are they good workers or are they like slacking off and ghosting?
Kathryn Dill: Well, one of the employers that I spoke with, who was able to open a business during the pandemic using almost entirely teen workers when he couldn't hire adults, so the teens that he's hired make great workers.
Ryan Knutson: That employer owns a bakery, and while the teens are vital to his operation, he told Kathryn, they do have some specific needs
Kathryn Dill: When they go back to school, everybody wants to still work Saturdays. That's not always possible. When the school year starts, he has to scramble around sometimes to fill his schedule. But then around the holidays, everybody wants to come back, and just work those specific weeks. So, there are these additional considerations, but the thing that he really pointed out was that there's a responsibility to giving someone their first job. He said for him, that meant just stretching out the training process a little bit more. So, he spends time teaching them all the fancy coffee drinks they serve, and the point of sales system. But he said, really it's about making them confident in dealing with customers.
Ryan Knutson: But even though teens have a lot more power now, they aren't always comfortable wielding that power.
Kathryn Dill: I think it's important to remember that even with all of the change, all of these factors that in many ways, teens are still teens. It's still nerve-wracking to talk to the manager of a movie theater. If you're 15, you may not necessarily be thinking about the intricacies of the broader labor market. They're still contending with the things that all job-seekers face, the anxiety of a lot of these first-time experiences.
Ryan Knutson: How long do you think that this will last? Do you think that teen unemployment will be low now again for years, or is this just going to be kind of like a blip?
Kathryn Dill: It's tough to know, because of some of these rapidly changing factors. There are considerations like the rest of the "world sort of coming back to life", and things like internships, which may have been remote coming back in-person. Some of the other things that competed for teen's time, big summer camps, big academic-related and sports-related in-person events. All of those being back in full force will certainly provide some competition for hourly work.
Ryan Knutson: What did you learn about life working at the AV department at the library?
Kathryn Dill: Well, I loved that job, and looking back on that now, I think about the ecosystem of work just seemed so rich to me, even when, sometimes I was pouring distilled water into the DVD cleaning machine, in a closet, in the basement of the public library, it still all seemed really fascinating to me.
Ryan Knutson: What you're saying resonates with me, because even though my first job was much less interesting at a Jamba Juice, I learned two very important things. One, it's not good to gossip about your coworkers, and two, smoothies are delicious.
Kathryn Dill: They are delicious.
Ryan Knutson: That's all for today, Tuesday, June 14th. The Journal is a co-production of Gimlet and the Wall Street Journal. Additional reporting in this episode by Rachel Wolfe. Thanks for listening. See you tomorrow.
Kate Linebaugh is the co-host of The Journal. She has worked at The Wall Street Journal for 15 years, most recently as the deputy U.S. news coverage chief. Kate started at the Journal in Hong Kong, stopping in Detroit and coming to New York in 2011. As a reporter, she covered everything from post-9/11 Afghanistan to the 2004 Asian tsunami, from Toyota’s sudden acceleration recall to General Electric. She holds a bachelor degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and went back to campus in 2007 for a Knight-Wallace fellowship.
Ryan Knutson is the co-host of The Journal. Previously, he spent more than four years in the newsroom covering the wireless industry, and was responsible for a string of scoops including Verizon’s $130 billion buyout of Vodafone’s stake in their joint venture, Sprint and T-Mobile’s never ending courtship and a hack of the 911 emergency system that spread virally on Twitter. He was also a regular author of A-heds, including one about millennials discovering TV antennas. Previously, he reported for ProPublica, PBS Frontline and OPB, the NPR affiliate station in Portland, Ore. He grew up in Beaverton, Ore. and graduated from the University of Oregon.