Teenage Unemployment and the Restaurant Industry

By: Dahlia Snaiderman

7 Minute Read

Jul 15, 2019

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I got my first job at 15, working prep in an Italian restaurant. I chopped vegetables, portioned dough, shredded cheese, ripped the beards out of mussels, deveined shrimp, sliced sausages into coins, washed and sorted spinach, received deliveries, and stood in the walk-in fridge when I was out of breath. 

I was informally mentored by the next-youngest person on staff, who was five years my senior and took me under his wing. I learned to work quickly and efficiently, how to interact with and learn from my coworkers. I learned when to joke around and when to go heads-down and power through a rush. I would go on to work in restaurants in the summer (and part time in the school year) on and off for the next six years. 

Working in a restaurant as a teenager was an experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. However, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center, only 34.6% of teens are taking paid summer jobs, including summer jobs in restaurants. 

Historically, the teen employment rate would decrease during economic recessions and climb back up during times of economic prosperity. In 1978, 58% of teens were employed in the summer. The teen employment rate has since dropped steadily, but it reached an all time low of 30% in 2009, in line with the recession. Since then, it has crept up slightly, and teens are starting to come back to restaurants, but the numbers are still low.

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

Resource: Download a Free Course on Hiring the Modern Workforce

Why aren’t teenagers working in restaurants like they used to?

First and foremost, the rise in minimum wage across the country has meant that restaurateurs are looking for workers that are more skilled and require less training because they’ll be higher paid, reports MarketWatch. This means that the teenagers who do get restaurant jobs can make more money, but the jobs may be just out of reach. 

Since 2010, the number of fast food jobs available has doubled, reports the New York Times, but there seem to be more jobs available 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 workers, including elderly workers, reports Bloomberg News, 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, extra courses, or volunteering – to help them get into college or to be selected for scholarships, which have become more competitive than ever, reports CNN

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that earlier school start dates could also be to blame: in Ohio, school starts in the second week of August. Students are less motivated to find work for less than two months and employers aren’t keen on training someone for such a short period of employment.

How does teen unemployment affect restaurants?

The minimum wage increase effects have been felt across the industry in the past few years and teen unemployment is a symptom of the same change.

Employers now have to pay more per hour for positions that used to be cheap to fill – and often these entry-level, low-paid jobs were scooped up by teenagers, especially in the summer. This always boded well for restaurateurs, because the summer is typically high season anyway, requiring more hands on deck.  

As mentioned above, some restaurateurs have taken to looking for workers that are a little more experienced (and require less training) to fill traditional entry-level jobs because they’ll be paying them more. However, every staff member still has to be trained, and some entry-level teenage workers with no work experience may be more eager to learn than someone with more experience.

There also seems to be a smaller pool of reliable high school and college students to hire summer after summer: restaurateurs are just not getting the piles of resumes that they used to. 

Keith Miller is a Subway franchise owner. “We used to get overwhelmed with the number of people wanting summer jobs,” he said to the New York Times. “I don’t know what teenagers do all summer.” 

It’s great for business to have a pool of students who come back to your restaurant every year: a returning summer employee means less time spent every spring trying to hire new people and less time training a totally new staff member. They can eventually be promoted to positions like assistant manager, 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 longtime employess, and it's an important experience for teenagers, especially those who come from low-income families. 

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 job 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.”

Simply put, 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 they pick up transferable skills like working under pressure, customer service, time management, organizational skills, 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 it was an invaluable experience and that he applied to work in restaurants because it was the best option financially for people his age. 

He has gained a lot from his time in restaurants. “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,” he added.

Not every teenager in restaurants is there because they love the industry: some are just trying to save up to pay for college, to contribute to their family’s expenses, or save up for travel. However, every teenager who works in restaurants has a job on their resume, and skills under their belt, that can help them get a job in the future. 

How to create a workplace that’s great for people of all ages

Teenagers and students are your 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 great experience, they’ll be back next summer, too. However, they can also be incredibly dedicated part-time workers throughout the year. 

Here’s how to make sure your restaurant is a welcoming place for teenage workers.

  1. Be flexible with scheduling and understand that school and family obligations may come up more for teenagers than other employees.

  2. Put up “Help Wanted” fliers in local community centers stating that you welcome entry-level candidates. In the same vein, post your job openings online and across social media – younger workers will come across more job posting on Instagram than they will on Craigslist. You can even post on sites like Jobs4Teens that specialize in work for young people.

  3. Create an inclusive company culture that values respect for all, regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, religion, or economic standing.

  4. Incorporate video into your training process. 

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

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