This is the best year in decades for teens to get summer jobs

Getting a summer job could teach teens a new lesson about their value as workers.
Getting a summer job could teach teens a new lesson about their value as workers.
Image: Reuters/Max Rossi
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There are a lot of things teens can learn from summer jobs: The responsibility that comes with showing up on time each day and being accountable to a boss, empathy for the difficulty of working in the service industry, the satisfaction of a job well done, the value of a dollar.

The US’s current tight labor market offers yet another excellent reason for teens to get a summer job. Workers finally have leverage over their employers, which means getting a job right now may raise young people’s expectations about what workers deserve for the rest of their lives.

The summer worker shortage

The Wall Street Journal reports that American businesses facing a hiring crunch are scooping up teens this summer, “creating a job bonanza, complete with more accommodating bosses, greater schedule flexibility and even higher pay than in summers past.” One restaurant owner tells the Journal he’s offering a $200 bonus to anyone who stays more than four months, while a Texas cafe owner reports that he’s raised wages from $9-$10 per hour to $12 in order to attract more workers, the majority of whom are teens.

With Covid-19 vaccines liberating more Americans to have fun and travel this summer, the frequently low-paying service and hospitality industries are particularly eager to staff up. But older workers aren’t necessarily eager to go back to low-wage jobs, which means that young people are in high demand. Already in May, labor force participation among 16-to-19-year-olds jumped to 33%, the highest point since 2008.

Labor scarcity gives employees more power

It’s interesting to imagine the potential long-term consequences of this climate for teenagers being introduced to the world of work for the first time. The New York Times predicts the new balance of power between workers and their employees “could persist for years” thanks to slowing population growth in the US, which makes the pool of potential workers smaller. Employers may be forced to think harder about how to attract and retain workers, rather than treating them as disposable under the assumption that there will always be more would-be employees waiting in the wings.

A teenager who lands a summer job flipping burgers or folding T-shirts right now may also internalize ideas about their value as workers. That could make them more likely to demand that their future employers pay livable wages and offer flexible policies that recognize their humanity, or to support union drives among other workers fighting for better conditions.

For years, employers have benefited from an economic climate in which many workers were made to feel lucky just to have a job. Looking ahead, today’s teens may well be in a position to make bosses feel lucky to just have them.