April 12, 2024

In the old days, before COVID, Emack & Bolio’s owner Bob Rook could hang a ‘Help Wanted’ sign in the window of one of his stores this time of year and have a teenager scooping ice cream for the summer within a couple of days.
Right now? That’s “impossible,” he said. Help wanted signs hang, unanswered, for months. He recently even had to close his Charlestown store early, on a warm spring night, for lack of staff.
“Usually at this time, we have more than enough people to scoop and to work,” Rook said. “But there are very few people applying.”
It’s a common complaint this spring among businesses that rely on teens for seasonal summer help. The labor market for young people to scoop ice cream, wait tables, and watch over a pool from a lifeguard chair is, like so many things, out of whack in the wake of the pandemic. Even before summer hits, teens are working in large numbers. After a sharp drop early in the pandemic, more than one-third of people aged 16 to 19 held jobs in April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s the highest teen employment rate since before the Great Recession of 2008.
And that’s good news for young people who want to make some extra money, with more opportunities and higher wages compared to past years.
Despite the sharp drop in youth employment in the spring and summer of 2020, the pandemic has largely revived teenage employment, said Alicia Sasser Modestino, a Northeastern University economist who studies the youth workforce.
“What we’re finding is that during the pandemic, because there is such a shortage of labor, employers have rediscovered that young people are quite a good source of labor,” said Modestino.
But teens might not be interested in the classic summer jobs of the past like camp counseling or waiting tables at a restaurant. Employers say the younger generation hasn’t necessarily helped solve their labor shortage, and filling summer positions is harder than ever.
Everwood Day Camp in Sharon has run into trouble hiring for positions from ceramics instructors to lifeguards. The camp, which employs over 250 people during the summer, has resorted to increasing pay in an effort to entice workers, said office manager Nikki Savaria. It recently implemented a $500 referral bonus for both staff members and the person they bring on (upon completion of six weeks’ work).
“It’s been a struggle,” said Savaria. “Usually, we’re a lot further along in the hiring process at this point in the year. So we’re just coming up with new tips and tricks to try to bring staff in this year that we haven’t done in the past.”
Everything is on the table when it comes to the benefits employers are offering to attract workers for summer positions, said Modestino. In some cases teens even have the leverage to land jobs that aren’t at the bottom rung of the ladder in terms of skill level or pay.
“They’re so desperate for workers, especially in this job segment of lower-wage entry-level jobs,” she said. “So you see employers not only offering higher wages, but potentially better schedules and other kinds of perks if they’re able to, all kinds of benefits that might be attractive to teenagers.”
Grace, a 19-year-old who didn’t want to give her last name because of safety concerns, is choosing to spend her last summer as a teenager working at an ice cream shop outside of Boston. She’s planning on putting most of her paychecks towards her college tuition.
“It’s good to be working, I think it teaches you a good work ethic,” she said. “It gives you more independence and helps you make some money in the summer.”
Nancy Thrasher, owner of Furlong’s Candies & Ice Cream in Norwood, hopes to find some people like that this summer, but is still waiting to see what her options will be. This year, many of her college-student summer workers are waiting to hear back from internships, putting Thrasher “in limbo.”
“I have a small stack of applications, but it’s tough because I don’t know how many I have to hire,” said Thrasher. “I don’t want to be scrounging at the last minute for help, so it’s kind of like being on the tip of a knife.”
Even one of the largest employers in Greater Boston, the YMCA, has faced some hiring woes: President and CEO James Morton said summer positions like lifeguards and camp counselors have been harder to fill because the labor force simply isn’t interested in those roles this year.
Morton isn’t too concerned, though — he plans to recruit through Boston’s Youth Engagement and Employment department, which runs a summer program that connects teenagers with jobs at nearly 200 community-based organizations in the city.
“The teen employment network in the City of Boston is tremendous,” said Morton. “They do a phenomenal job of creating easy access to summer employment opportunities for as many teenagers as they possibly can.
In Cambridge, the Youth Employment Center that helps match high schoolers to jobs has seen a “huge demand” for teen workers from private-sector employers, said the city’s director of Youth Services, George Hinds.
“I’ve been here for 22 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Hinds said.
With the help of Cambridge’s Youth Employment Center, 16-year-old Abel Wubishet recently filled a summer bank teller position that had been open for several months at Winter Hill Bank in Somerville.
“I was looking for my first job, and I’m really interested in banking,” said Wubishet. “And I didn’t want to sit around all summer, I wanted to do something.”
As long as the labor shortage persists, teens will likely find a strong job market, Modestino said. But businesses looking to hire for the summer will also continue to feel economic pain from long-vacant positions. So they’re doing the best they can to be appealing employers.
“You always try to treat people as good as possible, so they enjoy going to work each day,” Emack & Bolio’s Rook said. “That’s about all you can do.”
Annie Probert can be reached at annie.probert@globe.com.
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