They’ve noticed storefront windows flush with “hiring” signs. Their friends have jobs. And they say Google, that all-knowing oracle for teens, has been serving up a buffet of options from simple web searches.
It means Joe Kinsman will fill his summer days dishing out soft serve at Conny’s Creamy Cone in St. Paul. Harshini Sunil will be whipping up drinks at Caribou Coffee in Plymouth and teaching dance. Cole Boelter will be wooing passersby with fuzzy llama prizes at Valleyfair game booths in Shakopee.
“There’s honestly so many positions open right now,” said Summer Carlson, 16, who will spend her summer as a day camp counselor in Brooklyn Park. “Every restaurant or retail chain does have at least something.”
Minnesota has one of the most seasonal economies in the country, and the tightest labor market in decades is bestowing a kiss of fortune on teens searching for summer work.
Employers are raising wages, working social media, showing up at school job fairs and stressing in job postings how young workers can make a difference — a priority for Gen Z workers.
“This trend of really low unemployment for youth is really a sign that employers are looking far and wide for their staff right now, especially for these summer positions,” said Oriane Casale, a state labor market economist.
Last year marked the lowest level for the state’s teen unemployment in 18 years. The number of young people looking for work or getting jobs is also on the upswing, growing from 45% in 2012 to nearly 51%, new data show.
Many teens have more options than that age group has seen since before the Great Recession.
“This is a summer for teens to be encouraged to go out there and try to find a job,” said Mónica García-Pérez, an associate professor of economics at St. Cloud State University. “They are in a good market.”
From Twin Cities pools to resort golf greens on Gull Lake, hiring managers are counting on referrals from current workers to help entice their friends to apply.
Sunil, a graduating senior at Wayzata High School, heard about Caribou openings from a pal employed there.
“A lot of my friends are working. People talk about where they are working and who’s hiring,” she said. “It was pretty easy for me to find a job.”
Recruiting for seasonal positions ramped up long before the Memorial Day rush. More employers are now working to reach teens on their cellphone screens.
In Coon Rapids, Facebook videos posted in the dead of winter capture sunny poolside scenes and showcase teens from last summer saying why others should apply at Bunker Beach Water Park.
The YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities, which hired more than 1,300 teens last summer, is also relying on social media, along with employee referrals, to court Gen Z.
In the Brainerd lakes area, resorts like Cragun’s are tapping school job fairs to spread the word on openings. During Cragun’s summer season, 50 to 75 teenagers will be hired to wash dishes, serve food, landscape, clean and more.
“In our area, if you want a job as a youth or teen, there are plenty of jobs available,” said Eric Peterson, Cragun’s general manager. “It hasn’t always been that way.”
Some places, including the YMCA and Valleyfair, are boosting wages to stay competitive. But for local parks and recreation departments, raises may not be an option.
“We are competing with Home Depot and Menards and McDonald’s who can pay $12, $13, $14, $15 an hour,” said Jen Gillard, a recreation supervisor in Brooklyn Park. “We see more applicants ghosting us. … They will interview at four places and take the best offer. That’s something that did not happen even two years ago.”
As applicant pools shrink, Gillard said the city has started stressing in its job postings the value of working with younger students in roles like camp counselors.
“These Gen Z’ers really want to know that they are making a difference,” she said.
‘Busier than ever’
The job scene awaiting teens is a far cry from a decade ago, when the recession hit the country’s youngest workers especially hard.
Teen unemployment in Minnesota skyrocketed above 20% in 2009, compared to about 8% across all age cohorts, according to data from the state Department of Employment and Economic Development.
Young people, economists say, are especially sensitive to changes in the economy. If jobs aren’t easy to come by, they may forgo the search entirely.
When applicants abound, the first people that employers often cut are teens, Casale said.
Teens also face more competition for low-paying jobs from older workers, fresh college grads and immigrants.
A 2017 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics points to shrinking work opportunities, along with a greater focus on attending college and strenuous coursework that seeps into summer, as likely culprits behind the ongoing drop in teen workers.
Long gone are the days when high school gigs at the mall or local movie theater were the norm. In 1979, the number of teens working or looking for jobs nationwide peaked at nearly 58%. Now, only slightly more than a third are in the workforce.
But teens in Minnesota, as in other Midwestern states, far outpace the national average. About half of the state’s teens jumped into the workforce last year.
Employers and economists nod to the state’s strong seasonal economy and perhaps its work ethic.
“I can’t think of one friend of mine that doesn’t have a job,” said Lauryn Clay, 17, who is saving her earnings from her YMCA child care job for college.
Even during summer break, many students are shuttled from sports to college prep and volunteer work.
Conny McCullough is no stranger to scheduling headaches in trying to accommodate the handful of her “beloved coneheads” hired each season at her ice cream shop near Como Park in St. Paul.
“They want it all. They want to be able to have a job. They want to be able to do their sports or drama club,” she said. “Kids are busier than ever now.”
The jam-packed calendars of modern teens have spurred summer job hubs like Valleyfair to offer more flexible scheduling.
That’s what attracted Aimee Ilkka, 19, to the amusement park last summer as she juggled her part-time job there with her role in a “Beauty and the Beast” musical.
Hungry for more applicants, Valleyfair also has started turning to retirees for positions traditionally filled by teens, from working admissions to landscaping in the mornings before the sun gets too hot.
“We’ve had to really think about how we’re going to change our strategy about hiring and look at more nontraditional labor pools,” said Melissa Lutz, the park’s human resources director.
Just days ahead of Memorial Day weekend, Ilkka was all smiles as she stood waist-deep in Valleyfair’s wave pool, leading training for a group of shivering lifeguards. Tropical tunes played nearby, heralding sunnier skies.
“It’s all about work environment, that I feel like I’m thriving and having a blast,” said Ilkka, of New Prague. “It’s an amusement park. How can you not have fun?”