Commentary

Winning The War For Teen Talent

As the economy continues its rebound, teens face their best summer employment prospects in years, if not decades. According to The Wall Street Journal, the share of working teens 16 to 19 rose to 33.2% in May, the highest since 2008. And unemployment among that age group fell to 9.6%, the lowest since 1953.

What’s fueling the teen employment boom? The sectors most in need of workers, such as retail, restaurants, entertainment and hospitality, are the ones just now fully reopening post-COVID, and also the most historically dependent on young workers. Teens are the workforce demographic least likely to fear catching COVID, or to drop out of the labor market due to lack of child care. Older adults are more likely to receive enhanced unemployment benefits, and thus be choosier about returning to the workforce.

And the U.S. is still issuing far fewer immigrant work visas than before COVID and Trump, so these missing workers leave vacancies for teens to fill, particularly for seasonal agricultural or hospitality positions.

Teens looking for a job this summer are finding higher starting wages (often far above minimum wage); generous signing bonuses (typically several hundred dollars if they stay for at least several months); more flexible work schedules; and, frankly, lower standards: If they show up for their interview on time, they’re halfway to getting the job.

Some experts see the teen employment boom as an anomaly: pre-COVID, older adults crowded teens out of entry-level jobs, causing young people to focus more on school, standardized test prep, extracurricular activities, content creation and their own entrepreneurial endeavors. And it remains to be seen whether today’s high starting salaries and signing bonuses translate into long-term career growth and earnings potential.

In addition, the boom might help white, suburban teens more than urban, minority teens, as the former are more likely to have access to transportation, and to live in areas enjoying the biggest economic rebound. And if teens spend too much time working, it could reduce their focus on academics, and cost them future earnings potential. But for now, it’s time for many teens to cash in, following a 15-month famine.

How can brands win the war for teen talent?

*Make it social. Offer referral bonuses for teen workers who recruit their friends to join them. Use social media channels to target teen job-seekers, and also provide tools for teen employees to post job openings on their socials in a fun, concise way that’s still “on-brand” and compliant with employment law. And consider building an online community for young workers to exchange best practices, ideate on improvements, and establish friendships

*Offer real learning. Don’t just provide dead-end jobs with the same routinized tasks. Offer teens a chance to learn additional skills that they can apply to their academics, content creation and entrepreneurial endeavors. Let them shadow managers and executives, providing input where appropriate. Then let them bask in the success of their strategies, or understand why their ideas didn’t work, and how to do better next time.

*Spotlight a higher purpose. It’s not just making hamburgers; it’s feeding hungry people. It’s not just taking movie tickets; it’s entertaining the public for the first time in over a year. Connect the job with a higher societal purpose, as well as your brand’s pro-social initiatives. Hopefully the brand is doing something to address food insecurity, climate change and societal inequities; communicate that mission to teens, and invite them to be part of progress.

It’s a seller’s market for teen talent, and brands that best recruit and retain young workers will gain employees, customers and fans for life.

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