By Jeanne Sahadi, CNN Business
Teenage workers are in high demand this summer, especially at Main Street businesses.
And that will come as a relief since working teens were hard hit by pandemic-related layoffs. In May of 2020, their national unemployment rate was just shy of 30%, according to federal jobs data.
But by this May, it had plummeted to 9.6%, a level not seen since the early 1950s, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and data from the St. Louis Federal Reserve.
One reason is that teens are now benefiting from the difficult time many small businesses are having trying to adequately staff their operations as pandemic restrictions are lifted.
Adult job applicants have been hard to come by. Many are unable to return to work just yet because of childcare or health concerns. Some may have opted to leave their industry or simply choose to work at a bigger chain that pays better than its small business competitors. And others may be waiting until the $300 a week federal supplement to unemployment benefits expires.
‘When can you start?’
Before the pandemic, Jeff Rogoff would typically only hire teens as delivery drivers for his sit-down pizza restaurant Sazza, located in a suburb south of Denver.
Rogoff always figured it wasn’t worth his time and money to train people to work in his restaurant’s kitchen if he knew they would leave in a few months when school starts, he said.
Plus, he added, he has to abide by legal restrictions governing how long teens can work in a kitchen and the equipment they can use.
But this summer he has changed his tune.
“If a teenager came in and said ‘I can work for three months,’ I would hire them. It would be ‘Yes, when can you start?'” said Rogoff, who noted his 15-year-old restaurant has never been busier.
While three months still isn’t ideal, “It would give me three more months to find someone who will work out in the kitchen [longer term],” Rogoff said.
In addition to hiring more teens, Rogoff plans to give mid-year bonuses to current staff at his annual summer party for employees.
Bonuses are an easier way for small businesses to stay competitive, since increasing pay isn’t always a feasible option, said Luke Pardue, an economist for the small business payroll service provider Gusto.
Pre-pandemic, Gusto found that 7% of its customers offered new hires signing bonuses. Now 14% do. And the bonuses have risen from an average of $280 in 2019 to $900 today.
Working more flexible hours
Another go-to retention strategy before permanently hiking pay includes allowing for more latitude in scheduling, Pardue said.
In Bowman, North Dakota, it’s been hard to find adult applicants willing to work part-time at the local florist, Flowers and Cappuccino by Lasting Visions, said owner Lyn James, who also happens to be Bowman’s mayor.
Her shop has been very busy and she’s in need of extra hands this summer, so she is employing a couple more teens than usual. “Some adults [on staff] have opted to spend more time at home with their kids because it was such a rough year,” James said.
So while they’re still working at her shop, they’re putting in fewer hours.
James expects when school starts in September her adult staffers will resume their normal schedules. But until then, she really appreciates her teen employees and lets them set their hours around their other commitments. “We’re lucky to have them,” James said.
Even though she can’t pay top wage, she noted, “We’re super flexible here.”
Making the move to higher pay
Matt Vizcaino of Tortugas Pizza in Birmingham, Alabama, would be happy to get applications from teenagers to help out his mostly adult staff of 17, who are down from 22 before the pandemic.
In early June, Vizcaino decided his restaurant, which specializes in handmade Chicago-style pizzas that can take 45 minutes to prepare, would only operate four days a week for the time being, because he could see his employees were getting burnt out.
“We were open too many hours for the people we had,” he said. “We did just hire a high schooler and are actively telling our regulars if they have a kid to send them our way.”
And he is aiming to stay competitive.
In February, Vizcaino raised most of his employees’ wages by 15%, even though he said he had always paid his employees above minimum wage. And he expects new hires will come in at the higher base, regardless of age.