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How Teenage Unemployment Is Affecting the Restaurant Industry

Dahlia snaiderman

Dahlia SnaidermanAuthor

At fast food chains, local restaurants, and cafes across the world, teens play an important role in the service industry. Some of them are saving up for college, others contributing to their family’s expenses, and still more are just working towards a new Xbox. But regardless of their motivation, every teenager who works in a restaurant gets a job on their resume and skills under their belt, both of which can expand their future opportunities.

In fact, a recent New York Times feature highlighted award-winning chefs who got their start, many as teenagers, in chain restaurants like McDonald’s and Applebees. But according to a new report from the Pew Research Center, only 34.6% of teens took paid summer jobs in 2018, let alone paid summer jobs in restaurants. 

Historically, the teen employment rate has decreased during economic recessions and climbed back up during times of economic prosperity. In 1978, 58% of teens had summer jobs. The teen employment rate has since dropped steadily, reaching an all-time low of 30% in 2009, coinciding with the 2008 financial crisis. Since then, it has crept up slightly, with teens just starting to come back to restaurants — but the numbers are still low.

We’ll break down what this means for restaurateurs and teenagers, and how you can show that your restaurant welcomes workers of all ages. 

Why Aren’t Teenagers Working in Restaurants Like They Used To?

According to MarketWatch, the rise in state minimum wages across the country has meant that restaurateurs are looking for more skilled workers who require less training, to account for their higher paycheck. This means that the teenagers who do get restaurant jobs can make more money, but that these jobs may be just out of their reach. 

The New York Times reported that the number of available fast food jobs has doubled since 2010, but there now seem to be more available jobs than there are interested candidates. This has led to an industry-wide labor shortage and increased competition among restaurants trying to hire great people.  

Jobs in fast food restaurants are increasingly filled by adult and elderly workers, according to  Bloomberg News. This is happening for two main reasons: People are living longer and running out of retirement savings, and the labor shortage has led to restaurants widening their search for employees. Elderly workers also come with decades of experience and service skills.

Teens are also increasingly being pushed towards other types of opportunities — like internships or volunteering — to help them with college admissions and scholarships that have become more competitive than ever

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that earlier school start dates could also be to blame for the lack of teenagers working in restaurants. In Ohio, where school starts the second week of August, students are less motivated to find work for just two months or less, and employers aren’t keen on training someone for such a short period of employment.

How Does Teen Unemployment Affect Restaurants?

Employers now have to pay more per hour for positions that were previously cheap to fill. Teenagers used to scoop up these entry-level, low-paid jobs, especially in the summer. This was good for restaurateurs, because summer is typically high season, requiring more hands on deck.  

Though some restaurateurs have taken to looking for more experienced workers to justify higher  entry-level wage norms and less training, every new staff member is going to need some training. And entry-level teenage workers may be more eager to learn than someone with more experience, while more seasoned workers may bring along habits cemented at other jobs that can be hard to unlearn.

There also seems to be a smaller pool of reliable high school and college students to hire, and restaurateurs are just not getting the piles of resumes that they used to. “We used to get overwhelmed with the number of people wanting summer jobs,” Subway franchise owner Keith Miller told The New York Times. “I don’t know what teenagers do all summer.” 

It’s great for business to have a handful of students who come back to your restaurant every year: A returning summer employee means less time spent hiring and training a totally new staff member each spring. They can also eventually be promoted to positions like assistant or shift manager, and take on the burden of training new staff themselves. 

Fewer teens in restaurants also means fewer employees to mentor. Mentorship can be an extremely rewarding part of restaurant industry jobs for both mentors and mentees — and it’s an especially important experience for teenagers who come from low-income families. 

Today’s teenagers are also hyper-aware of everything from social issues to social media. They care about inclusion, and they push company culture to a better place. Their input can help keep brands hip and current — if they see a Facebook ad that looks like it was made in 2012, they’ll definitely let you know.  

How Are Teens Impacted by Restaurant Jobs?

Having a job between the ages of 16 and 19 is a crucial step in the development of a young person. Not only do they learn skills that will be useful for the rest of their lives, but teens employed in the summer also get into less trouble. A 2006 report from Northeastern University said: “Teens, especially economically disadvantaged teens, with no paid employment also are more likely to drop out of high school, become involved with the criminal justice system, and to become pregnant.”

A job in a restaurant teaches teenagers how to work and gives them purpose. They get to learn by doing (which isn’t always an option in school) and pick up transferable skills like working under pressure, customer service, time management, organization, and how businesses run. They also get to interact with people from all walks of life, broadening their perspectives. 

Zachary Manzali, 18, has worked in three restaurants: a neighborhood burger joint, a Taco Bell, and an ice cream shop. He says they were each invaluable experiences, and that he applied to work in restaurants because it was the best option financially for people his age. 

“I learned to work under pressure and stay on task, as well as how to deal with rude customers,” said Manzali. “You get to meet new people you never thought you would.”

[Working in restaurants,] I learned to work under pressure and stay on task, as well as how to deal with rude customers. You get to meet new people you never thought you would.

Zachary Manzali

How to Hire Teenagers

Teenagers and students are prime candidates when it comes to seasonal work. They’re happy to start in May and say goodbye in September, and if they have a good experience, they’ll be back next summer.

Here are a few ways to make sure your restaurant is an attractive place for teenage workers to spend their summers.   

  1. Clearly state that you hire entry-level candidates, and that you provide paid job training, in all of your job postings. Highlight your mentorship program if you have one. 

  2. Place job postings in high school newspapers and on high school bulletin boards — note that most schools require posters to be approved before posting, so reach out to your local school’s career or guidance counselor or community manager. 

  3. Post your job openings on your website’s Team or Jobs page, and update it regularly. If a position is filled, take down the posting immediately. 

  4. Post your job openings across social media — younger workers are more likely to come across your job posting on your restaurant’s Instagram page than on Craigslist or a specialized industry job board. 

  5. Work with local community organizations that have youth mentorship programs and take out ad space in their newsletters or on their bulletin boards. 

  6. Get testimonials from young workers in your restaurant to use in your job postings and social media posts. 

  7. Use video to make your restaurant stand out from the crowd.  

  8. Put a referral program in place. Have your employees recommend their friends for a job at your restaurant — if they’re hired, the referring employee gets a cash bonus. 

How to Create a Workplace That’s Great for Young People

Now that you’ve got teenagers applying to work at your restaurant, you also need to make sure your workplace sets them up for success. 

  1. Be flexible with scheduling — school and family obligations may come up more for teenagers.

  2. Create an inclusive company culture that values respect for all.

  3. Incorporate video into your training process

  4. Create fun challenges centered around cleanliness, food safety, or customer service, and reward the winners with days off, free meals for them and a friend, or a cash bonus.

  5. Set each young worker up with a mentor, not just for their training period. A mentor should not be someone the mentee reports to directly at work, but should be someone they feel comfortable coming to with questions at any time.


Hiring teenagers to work in your restaurant is a win-win-win: While they gain transferable skills that can advance their careers, they're also providing your senior staff with mentorship opportunities and allowing you to develop a pool of staff to tap during busy seasons. They're easy to train, eager to learn, and will keep your company young and current, helping you build a culture that's inclusive for all.

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