Why Teen Employment Numbers Are Down

Jun 29, 2018
Originally published on June 29, 2018 11:20 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

It is summertime. And that means teenagers are working summer jobs - or at least looking for them. But this year, not so much. Teen employment numbers are down from previous decades. Stacey Vanek Smith and Danielle Kurtzleben with our daily business podcast The Indicator looked into what's going on.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Since I was doing a story on teen summer jobs, of course I had to call up the place where I had my first real summer job. It's called The Barn, a restaurant and golf course in an actual refurbished barn in rural Iowa. Mark Krull, the current owner, said he doesn't see a lot of teenagers applying to work there anymore, which makes sense, given what's happening in the labor market.

MARK KRULL: We get some. But it seems like they're all so busy, they can never work when we want them to work.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: The number of teens who go out and get summer jobs has plummeted in the last few decades. On top of all that, though, it hasn't really picked up all that much since the Great Recession, even though unemployment on the whole is as low as it's been since 2000.

KURTZLEBEN: Last July, nearly 37 percent of teenagers were working. But back in the 1980s and 1970s, there were a few summers where that teen employment rate was at or near 60 percent.

VANEK SMITH: That is a big change since Paul Harrington had his first job.

PAUL HARRINGTON: I was a gas station attendant. I think I was about 14 then.

VANEK SMITH: Today, Paul is a labor economist at Drexel University, and he has done a lot of research into youth unemployment.

HARRINGTON: The labor market is really quite good for pretty much everyone. I mean, these are really good times. You know, the big exception to that is teenagers.

KURTZLEBEN: The first big reason young Americans aren't working is older Americans.

HARRINGTON: Lots and lots of older workers now are working in teen labor markets.

VANEK SMITH: Americans are staying in the labor force longer and longer these days for a bunch of reasons. They're living longer. Some people need more money to retire. Others just want to work longer.

KURTZLEBEN: And given the choice between a 16-year-old and a 66-year-old, Harrington says most employers will just pick the latter because they see those older workers as more dependable. But it's not all about employers not wanting to employ teens. It's also about teens not wanting to be employed.

HARRINGTON: The higher education system now, I would argue, punishes high school kids for working because the rewards in high school for college admission are not work-related. They're, you know, community service, that sort of thing and, you know, with respect to extracurricular activities.

VANEK SMITH: And, Harrington says, if people don't pick up foundational work skills as teens, it's going to create workforce-wide productivity problems.

KURTZLEBEN: But all is not lost. I found a teen summer worker. I got to talk to Krista Schutter. She's 18 years old. She just graduated from North Iowa High School - go Bison - and this is her second summer lifeguarding at the swimming pool in Buffalo Center, Iowa.

KRISTA SCHUTTER: It's much more fun than I originally anticipated.

KURTZLEBEN: Is that what you like most about it, is working with the kids?

SCHUTTER: Yeah. Truth be told, I did not like kids growing up. Like, they just kind of scared me (laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: She doesn't plan on making a career of lifeguarding, of course. She is headed to college this fall.

SCHUTTER: Yeah. I am going to go to Iowa State and major in animal science.

KURTZLEBEN: Cool. Are you going to be a veterinarian?

SCHUTTER: That's the goal (laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: So this lifeguard job isn't exactly setting her up for that. But Harrington says that actually doesn't matter.

HARRINGTON: Well, the first thing you see is that kids who work when they're in high school, they just are more likely to work as an adult. They have higher employment rates as adults than kids who don't work while they're in high school.

KURTZLEBEN: And even at age 18, Krista says she can see this happening herself.

SCHUTTER: I'm constantly interacting with parents and kids, and I think it's really helped my people skills.

KURTZLEBEN: So all of those people skills Krista picks up as a lifeguard may help her be an even better veterinarian years from now. Danielle Kurtzleben.

VANEK SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.