Wanted: Teens. Metro Detroit's youngest workers in high demand for summer jobs
Zain Rodger set off on a teenage rite of passage when he drove down Woodward Avenue last month scoping out a summer job.
The 17-year-old landed a front-of-the-house gig at the Panda Express in Royal Oak. Rodger liked the restaurant's proximity to his house and that his manager was fine with him leaving for college in late August. The pay also was a plus: He makes $14 per hour, well above Michigan's minimum hourly wage of $8.25 for minors.
"I'm definitely happy with how things worked out," Rodger said.
A national labor shortage is intensifying businesses' need for teenage workers, specifically for those looking to fill hourly roles in industries such as food service, hospitality and retail. Combined with Michigan moving to a full economic reopening and the timing of summer break, experts say it has created a perfect scenario for teens looking to start working.
May recorded the lowest jobless rate among teens since 1953, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics first reported in the Wall Street Journal. The percentage of teens working reached its highest point since the Great Recession in 2008.
Data provided to The Detroit News by the human resources platform Gusto shows a similar trend in Metro Detroit. In a typical June prior to the pandemic, teens would make up 13% of new hires in Metro Detroit. But this year, Gusto found that nearly one out of every three workers, or 32%, starting a new job in the region was a teen.
And Detroit area teens are getting paid more for their labor. Gusto reported hourly wages averaged $10.94 in June, up from $8.76 a year prior.
"Teenagers are the name of the game for any small business looking to hire right now," Gusto economist Luke Pardue said. "And they've been able to dictate the terms of their employment."
Businesses look to teens
Teens have more choices in the labor market as businesses scramble to staff up and meet the rising demand associated with the state's full reopening. The shifting work landscape has prompted businesses to get creative and improve employment packages to win over workers.
Layne's Chicken Fingers, a small chain in Texas, promoted workers in their teens and early 20s to management roles, some of which come with a $50,000 salary. In Frankenmuth, the Bavarian Inn has offered its famous chicken dinners for free to early interviewees at job fairs.
Some businesses are turning to teen workers when they have not in the past. Brighton's Running Lab did away with an unspoken rule of only hiring applicants 18 and older this year to widen their applicant pool for the running store, manager Toni Reese said. Reese found younger applicants she would have always wanted as employees.
"They are just really great individuals, and they just happen to be young," Reese said of her teen hires. "They have been crazy valuable to our store."
Reese has had so much luck with teen workers that she has not turned to job boards to fill openings as she has in the past. Unlike most adult employees at the store who work full time on a salary and benefits, teens have applied for part-time roles starting at $11 per hour.
Still, it has been a tough year for students. And some may be turned off from working during the break, said Zoë Erb, who helps run SummerWorks, an internship placement program for 16- to 24-year-olds in Washtenaw County. The program is partially supported by the University of Michigan, MichiganWorks! Southeast, and Washtenaw's Office of Community and Economic Development.
With online learning and a restricted economy marking most of the academic year, it has been more difficult for SummerWorks to get teens working or participating in career-building activities than in pre-pandemic summers. Erb said teens may prioritize in-person opportunities that they missed out on before the COVID-19 vaccines became available.
"I think people, especially young adults, want to go do stuff," she said.
Disparities also still exist, even within the overall boom. Federal data show it has been tougher for teens of color to find work this summer compared with their White peers, continuing a longstanding trend. In June, the unemployment rate was 5.2% among White teens, 5.8% for Asian teens, 7.4% for Hispanic/Latinx teens and 9.2% for Black teens.
Business owners say they are more thankful than ever when someone comes in looking for a job. They are also more likely to take a chance on a teen looking for a first job than in the past.
Gone are the days when Mike LeFevre had hundreds of applicants every summer at his St. Clair Shores restaurant Mike's on the Water and could afford to be picky. This year, he's offering higher wages for kitchen workers and training school-aged employees without prior liquor experience to be servers.
The attitude toward hiring this year is, "We'll train you when you get here," he said. "We need bodies."
On a recent afternoon, LeFevre visited a restaurant where customers were forced to wait even though a majority of the tables were empty. LeFevre had seen a similar story play out at his own restaurant but knew he was not impacted as deeply as others in the industry.
He left the restaurant and cried in his car. LeFevre felt overwhelmed with gratitude — for both the workers he already has and the new ones trickling in.
"I'm blessed when someone comes into Mike's and wants to fill out an application," he said. "I'm very blessed to have people there."
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Alex Harring - Published 11:30pm July 7, 2021; Updated 12:16pm July 8, 2021