Teen smiling working at bakery
Amid an adult labor shortage, teens are snatching up lucrative gigs.Emma Kim/Getty Images
  • While many adult workers have bowed out of the workforce, teens have jumped in eagerly.
  • The teen unemployment rate this year reached the lowest figures since the 1950s.
  • Teens told Insider their job searches have been quick and led to higher-paying jobs.

Dana Graham, 18, realized something last year when activities halted and school went online: She had a lot more free time on her hands. 

So the Silver Spring, Maryland-based student started looking for a job — a trend that would only grow with teens across the US a year later.

16- to 19-year-olds were one of the worst-hit age groups in the labor market during last year's recession. Their unemployment rate in April 2020 soared to 32%, compared to nearly 15% overall, while just 30% of teens that month were employed or actively looking for work, the lowest ever. 

But the teen workforce has since revived, with its unemployment rate this year reaching the lowest figures since the 1950s. In April 2021 alone, before the traditional summer job hiring months of May and June, teens gained 256,000 jobs. And teens only have 1% fewer jobs than in February 2020 and even surpassed that level this summer, while workers 20 and above are still down 3%.    

This strength of the teen job market is continuing even beyond the traditional season. While many teens typically leave their summer jobs and return to their desks once school starts, the decline this year hasn't been as stark. Only 98,000 jobs have been lost for teens since July, a weaker decline than in years past. 

Sophia Chun, 18, of Orange County, California, worked two jobs earlier this year, being an educator in addition to being a tutor. "It wasn't hard to manage both jobs," she said. But that was with virtual classes — when her school went back to in-person instruction, she had to quit one of the jobs, she said. 

Winson Cheng, 18, of Rancho Cucamonga, California, who worked at a Jack in the Box during the summer, also noticed a much larger contingency of students who worked in his senior class. "There's no way students could have done that in the past. It was because of that online learning environment," he said.

Key for fueling that growth was greater opportunities for teens to get hired as employers struggled to find workers amid a labor shortage. All of the teens Insider spoke to said at one point their locations were or are still understaffed. 

Celine Thomas-Philip, 18, of Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, worked as a barista at a local coffee shop this summer. She said a lot of employers were hiring when she was initially looking for a job, so much so that she didn't receive a single rejection from the 10 locations she applied to.

"Employers need people," Dhillon Patel, 17, of Westfield, New Jersey, said. Patel worked as a junior tennis pro at a local tennis and swim club, and when he was first looking for work he said they were understaffed and still adding people halfway through the summer. 

Not every job search has been equal for teens, however. "The way everyone else had described it, it seemed like everyone got their job easy peasy, they were working the next week," Natalia Isaac, 17, of Falls Church, Virginia, said. Still, she said, her search, which eventually landed her at a beauty supply store, only lasted two weeks.

The struggle of getting adults to return to the labor force led to some employers taking on workers who may not have been traditionally who they'd hire. Chun said she believes the only reason she got hired at her tutoring job was because of understaffed conditions. Chun was hired when she was a high school senior. "They don't usually do that," she said, adding that staff are typically at the college level.

Many work locations also raised their wages to attract adults back into the workforce, though shortages still persisted. Teens have benefited from these incentives. In the second quarter of 2021, median weekly nominal earnings for teens surged 12.3%, compared to only 0.6% for all workers. 

With this, teens have been empowered to take jobs with higher pay. Graham originally worked as a cashier in a restaurant, but wasn't enjoying the hours she was taking on. "I was looking for something more fun during the summer," she said. So she took a job as a lifeguard, where she said she earned $4-5 more than at the restaurant. 

"There are other employees that this is their job to pay the bills," Cheng said. "I think that it's definitely not enough money. This as a full-time position is something that should allow people to survive."

But for many teens, earning money at all is a big deal, especially for those who are getting their first job. 

"$13 an hour is pretty good compared to what my friends were making," said Kelsi Steigerwald, 17, of Boca Raton, Florida, who works as a packager at an online retail store. "I think it's pretty reasonable for what I do."

Even with all these incentives, many teens said their root drive for finding a job is a familiar one to years past: It's just simply their time. 

Steigerwald said that getting a job is part of growing up. "I was at the age where I started to need to look," she said. 

While some of these teens had to give up their jobs as they went off to college, others who are still at home are trying to manage their newfound careers with their usual academics.

"I have less hours because of the school year," Isaac said, adding that she's still been looking for more work. An upcoming basketball season may complicate that, but she hopes to be able to do all three. 

"Balancing out school and work is actually working out really well," Stephen Disol, 16, of Montesano, Washington, who works at a local grocery store, said. Why try to manage this? To Disol, it's simple: "I still want to get paid."

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