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‘You can’t do anything but keep searching’: Despite hiring push, summer jobs can still feel hard to come by

Massachusetts has reopened, but the labor market is messier than ever

Teenage workers at Chill on Park in Dorchester, Tahnyi Brown and Unique Berry wait on customers.
Teenage workers at Chill on Park in Dorchester, Tahnyi Brown and Unique Berry wait on customers.John Tlumacki

Wendy Issokson, owner of the Chill on Park ice cream shop in the Fields Corner section of Dorchester, is struggling to find full-time workers.

Yet Alicia Cruz, a 19-year-old from East Boston, can’t find a job. She has worked in restaurants and stores for years, and used to get hired “basically on the spot.” Not this year.

“It’s like, ‘Wow, nobody wants to hire me,’ ” Cruz said. “You want to have money in your pocket but you can’t do anything but keep searching.”

As Boston’s economy revs up in this post-COVID-19 summer, there’s a disconnect in the labor market that’s frustrating economists and workers alike. Stores and restaurants are staffing up en masse, which should make it a good time for job growth. Employers say they’re eager to hire. Yet for teens who are looking for work right now, it can still be a difficult and messy process.

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On paper, are many positive indicators for teen job-hunters. More than 33 percent of teens ages 16 to 19 were employed last month — the highest percentage since 2008, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, after years of that number trending downward. And the share of teens who say they want work and can’t find it is falling.

But those broad national numbers can mask a lot of nuance, said Alicia Sasser Modestino, an economist at Northeastern University, who noted that Black and Hispanic teens, for instance, tend to have more limited job access.

One obstacle facing teens here is Massachusetts’ relatively slow return to normalcy. The state trailed many others in reopening, and service industries here were especially hard hit by the pandemic, said Tom Kochan, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. With all the uncertainty this spring, some companies slowed their usual staffing-up process; now summer is here, and the rush is on.

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Economists expect to see an uptick in restaurant and retail openings in the coming weeks, but managers may defer to more experienced adults, looking for longer-term jobs, without some of the complicated work rules that govern teen employment. That may not bode well for teens looking for a two-month gig, Modestino said.

“There’s a ready and willing labor supply that’s just a little older, just a little bit more experienced, doesn’t have any of these restrictions,” she said. “And they’re there basically all year-round.”

Then there’s a mismatch between where the jobs are, and where teen job-hunters live.

In downtown Boston, tourism, hospitality and leisure activities — big seasonal employers — have been slower to ramp up, said Joe McLaughlin, director of research and evaluation at the Boston Private Industry Council, a nonprofit that typically places over 1,000 students in summer jobs each year. Yet suburban retail is back to something resembling normal, and tourist destinations such as Cape Cod are booming.

“We’ve never reopened an economy before,” McLaughlin said. “When you do that you realize the potential complications when you try to go from zero to sixty.”

The disconnect is affecting business owners, too.

Teenage worker at Chill on Park, Unique Berry, waits on Nova Harrison, 2, held by her mother Angie Pullum, as she points out the flavor she wants.
Teenage worker at Chill on Park, Unique Berry, waits on Nova Harrison, 2, held by her mother Angie Pullum, as she points out the flavor she wants. John Tlumacki

Issokson, said she hired about 18 workers this year at her Dorchester ice cream shop, compared to her typical 10 to 12. She recently sent e-mail blasts through her local Boys and Girls Club to dozens of teens. Just a handful responded.

“People want less hours; people are taking more vacation,” she said. “It’s taking me a lot more staff to get the same amount of hours covered.”

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Openings are everywhere, she said, but many business owners remain understaffed. Her 20-year-old son, who recently returned from college, got a job offer on the spot. At another popular ice cream store, Emack & Bolios, the number of employees looking for full-time work has dried up, said founder and owner Robert Rook. More teens than usual are answering his ads for scooping positions.

But even the hiring process these days can be confusing, and messy. Just ask 20-year-old Zayda Hollis. He’s been applying for jobs all over town, including many that, it turned out, had already been filled but were still posted online.

“Trying to get these jobs was stressful,” says Hollis. You’re waiting to get [the job], you got these people that are getting it before you and they still leave everything on the site, so it’s like ‘Oh, we’re still hiring,’ but nobody is hiring.”

Finally, Hollis landed a job at Home Depot and eventually a gig at an AMC movie theater — but it took a ton of legwork, even phone calls to the corporate offices of those huge companies when he didn’t hear back locally.

Persistence paid off for Cruz, too. The recent high-school graduate moved on from the restaurant and retail jobs she has worked since her freshman year. Next week she’ll start a full-time internship at Bank of America, before heading to Suffolk University in the fall. To her peers who haven’t found a job, she urges them to stay positive.

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“People should keep looking,” Cruz said. “You just need patience.”


Samantha Subin can be reached at samantha.subin@globe.com.