Part-time jobs, particularly in the summer, have long been a rite of passage for teenagers. These days, however, fewer and fewer of them are spending their vacations working. Though youth employment rates saw a modest improvement in recent years, any gains they might have seen this summer have since been dashed by COVID-19.
Twenty years ago, about half of American teenagers held jobs, according to the Pew Research Center. But in the decade following the 2008 financial crash, when low-skilled, entry-level jobs were suddenly few and far between, that figure hovered around 25%.
In recent years, summer teen employment has been on a slow but steady incline, from 27.2% in 2014 to 30.8% in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This summer, that figure was projected to hit nearly 33%, the highest level since before the Great Recession. But then COVID-19 struck, and many places that traditionally hire teenagers for the summer—like pools, movie theaters, clothing retailers and camps—shut down.
The COVID-19 pandemic and economic shutdown have made for a tough summer job market for teens. Only about 23% of those ages 16-19 are spending the summer working, a historic low.
That national trend rings true in local teens' experiences, too. Seventeen-year-old Gina Whitebird, who attends White Bear Lake Area High School – South Campus, said that she is among the only one of her friends currently employed.
One day each week, Whitebird delivers newspapers for Press Publications. She applied for the job in February before COVID-19 cases were widespread throughout Minnesota, but her first day wasn't scheduled until mid-March. “I wasn't going to be able to deliver for a while, just because I was going to be on spring break. Then once spring break was over for me, quarantine started,” she said. “Thankfully, I found out that I was considered an essential worker, so I was able to actually start.”
Because dropping off papers in outdoor mailboxes does not involve much face-to-face interaction, Whitebird is not required to wear a mask while on the job. However, she said that she has been choosing to wear one anyway as an extra precaution.
“I feel a little bit better about it, especially because I sometimes pass people out running or walking their dogs,” she explained. “It just makes me feel like I'm being safer, and I'm trying to be as safe as possible.”
Because her current job with Press Publications is only for a few hours one day a week, Whitebird is currently searching for a second job to supplement her income, though she has not yet had much luck. Finding an opening amid the pandemic is hard enough, never mind the typical trouble of securing an interview.
“Most places I've ever gone to asking, they're always like, 'Oh, yeah, sure. We're hiring,' and then they'll give me a slip or a website or something, and I'll go and fill it out,” she said. “But then with most of them, I don't ever get called back. I usually have to call them myself. But most of them still don't end up taking me, eventually.”
Whitebird said that she is not picky when it comes to employment. She worked at a grocery store for about a month and is not interested in working at another one, but other than that, she just wants to find a job.
“I went to a gas station yesterday and applied, and I'm going to apply to Walgreen's and a few clothing stores,” she said. “I'm kind of just looking for anything, honestly.”
Whitebird added that come September, she hopes that she can return to Pine Tree Apple Orchard. “That's a job I've had every single fall for the past three years. It's made me some pretty good money, but I also especially appreciate it because I felt like I was valued there,” she said. “Every year, I kept moving up and having more responsibilities.”
But as with many things throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, in the meantime, she will have to wait and see.
Elizabeth Callen can be reached at 651-407-1229 or email@example.com.