Teens have long been vital to filling out the summertime staffs of restaurants, ice cream stands, amusement parks and camps.
Now, thanks to one of the tightest labor markets in decades, they have even more sway, with an array of jobs to choose from at ever higher wages.
To ease the labor crunch, some states are moving to roll back restrictions to let teens work more hours and, in some cases, more hazardous jobs — much to the chagrin of labor rights groups, who see it as a troubling trend.
Economists say there are other ways to expand the workforce without putting more of a burden on kids, including by allowing more legal immigration.
Seeking teen workers
At Funtown Splashtown USA, an amusement park in southern Maine, teens play a critical role in keeping the attractions open, which isn't as easy as it used to be.
General Manager Cory Hutchinson anticipates hiring about 350 workers this summer, including many local high schoolers, compared with more than 500 in past summers.
“We literally do not have enough people to staff the place seven days a week and into the evenings,” he said. This summer, Funtown Splashtown will only be open six days a week, and will close at 6 p.m., instead of 9 p.m.
In April, nearly 34 percent of Americans aged 16 to 19 had jobs, according to government data. That compares with 30 percent four years ago, the last pre-pandemic summer.
More jobs are available for those who want them: There are roughly 1.6 jobs open for every person that is unemployed, according to the Labor Department. In normal times, that ratio is about 1:1.
At RideAway Adventures on Cape Cod, which offers kayak, bike and paddleboard rentals and tours, finding enough teen workers hasn't been a challenge. Owner Mike Morrison chalks it up to the fact that RideAway is a desirable place to work compared with other options.
“They’re not washing dishes and they get to be outside and active,” Morrison said.
Plus, while he typically starts off new teen hires at $15 an hour, the state’s minimum wage, he will bump up the pay of hard workers by as much as 50 cents per hour toward the end of July to help keep them through the end of summer.
Maxen Lucas, a graduating senior at Lincoln Academy in Maine, had his first job at 15 as a summer camp dishwasher, followed by a stint as a grocery bagger before getting into landscaping. He said young workers can be choosier now.
“After COVID settled down, everyone was being paid more,” said the 18-year-old from Nobleboro who’ll head off to Maine Maritime Academy this fall.
Indeed, hourly pay jumped about 5 percent in April from a year ago at restaurants, retailers and amusement parks, the industries likely to employ teens. Before the pandemic, pay in these industries typically rose no more than 3 percent annually.
Addison Beer, 17, will work this summer at the Virginia G. Piper branch of the Boys & Girls Club in Scottsdale, Arizona, where she feels a strong connection with colleagues and the kids she helps out.
Because of a scheduling conflict, she temporarily took a job at Zinburger, a restaurant that was desperate for workers. “They just asked me a few questions and were like, ‘Oh, you’re hired!’” she said.
For many teens, the point of a summer job doesn't have to be about finding the highest pay available.
“Having a job is just so I can sustain myself, be more independent, not rely on my parents too much,” said Christopher Au, 19, who has been dishing out ice cream at a J.P. Licks in Boston for the past few months.
Jack Gervais, 18, of Cumberland, Maine, lined up an internship shooting photography at an arts venue and will earn roughly the minimum wage of $13.80 an hour while gaining skills that relate to his career goals. But he said many kids he knows are seeking — and commanding — higher paying jobs.
“Nobody I know would work for minimum wage, unless there were major tips involved," he said.
Expanding teen hours
New Jersey passed a law in 2022 allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to work up to 50 hours per week during the summer, when the state’s shore economy swells with tourists. The previous limit was 40 hours per week.
The measure has earned praise from parents.
Sally Rutherford, 56, of North Wildwood, New Jersey, said her 17-year-old son, Billy, was excited about the change. With the money he earns working as a game operator at a Jersey Shore amusement park, he'll be able to help pay for a car.
“It makes him a much more independent and responsible,” she said.
Other states are considering a variety of proposals to expand teens' role in the workplace.
In Wisconsin, lawmakers are backing a proposal to allow 14-year-olds to serve alcohol in bars and restaurants. In Iowa, the governor signed a bill into law Friday that will allow 16- and 17-year-olds to serve alcohol in restaurants, and to expand the hours minors can work.
Child welfare advocates worry the measures represent a coordinated push to scale back hard-won protections for minors.
Immigration is a factor
Economists say allowing more legal immigration is a key solution to workforce shortages, noting that it has been central to the country’s ability to grow for years in the face of an aging population.
Many resort towns rely on immigrants with summer visas to staff businesses such as restaurants, hotels, and tourist sites. But immigration fell sharply during the COVID outbreak as the federal government tightened restrictions. In 2022, nearly 285,000 of the summer visas were issued, down from about 350,000 before the pandemic.
The Federal Reserve in March estimated that the overall drop in immigration has cost the United States nearly one million workers, compared with pre-pandemic trends. Immigration is rebounding to pre-COVID levels, but the effects are still being felt.
Labor crunch beginning to ease
Another factor straining the labor market is Baby Boomers reaching retirement age. The Federal Reserve calculates that rising retirements has left the economy with about 2 million fewer workers.
Yet despite the significant challenges employers face this summer, labor shortages are much less of a problem than they were in 2021, when the pandemic made many people reluctant to return to consumer-facing jobs. Higher inflation has also incentivized many people to seek work to help their families cover food and rent.
In just the past six months, 2 million Americans who had been out of the workforce have taken jobs or started looking for one. The share of Americans aged 25 through 54 who are working or job-hunting is now above pre-pandemic levels.