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Teen workforce bounces back after COVID-19

Students and employers consider the pros and cons of working in high school


Teen workforce bounces back after COVID-19

DJ Cain, 15, started working at a Chick-fil-A location in Wichita, Kan., early last year. To get the job, he submitted his application on his 14th birthday even though he knew child labor laws would restrict his hours. Cain can’t use tools such as pressure fryers. Until he turns 16, he can work up to 18 hours a week and no later than 7 p.m. That means he can only work immediately after school, which conflicts with his track and field and baseball practices. Cain dropped sports to work, but he still has to juggle his work responsibilities with school. “One of the things I like to do is stay after work … and just do my homework before I go home,” he said.

In 1990, nearly half of all teens ages 16-19 held jobs. That’s just a few percentage points lower than teen employment in 1953. By February 2020, only 32 percent of teens worked. Just two months later, the number tanked to 20 percent as COVID-19 restrictions and fears closed many businesses—some permanently. In August of this year, teen employment squeaked past pre-pandemic levels to just under 34 percent. While some education experts tout the benefits of teen jobs, others caution against high school students jumping into the job market before taking stock of their options.

Students who take on jobs get more out of the experience than spending money, said Chelsea Daniel, who oversees the Youth Employment Project at the Workforce Centers of South Central Kansas in Wichita. She added that some of the biggest benefits include added experience in interpersonal skills, especially communication. Another bonus? “[They can] have a better understanding of the careers that are available out there to them,” she said.

During the pandemic, some students opted for a job over school. Sandy Addis, chairman of the National Dropout Prevention Center, said that while some students dropped out because they preferred to work, that likely wasn’t the case with most. A 2015 report showed that career development is the top predictor for students staying in school—even surpassing family engagement and student mentoring.

Addis added that most students are more likely to stay in school if they have a job that has some connection to their schoolwork and if employers are willing to cooperate with the school and work around school hours. Employers can heavily influence a student’s school participation, he said. He urged employers to ask students about school and show interest in their learning experience.

It’s not a new idea. “Coaches have done this for years: You don’t attend, you don’t pass—you don’t play,” Addis said. “Same thing works for employers: you don’t attend, you don’t pass—you don’t work. Kids will get that message in a hurry.”

Tammie Romstad, district athletic director at Kansas City, Kan., public schools and a member of the executive board for the Kansas State High School Activities Association, said that high school jobs can cut into students’ ability to participate in after-school activities. Some students work around the issue by working during the summer or only participating in one season of sports or other academic activities for the year, then cutting their work hours for that season.

While students can learn traits like teamwork and responsibility through both school activities and employment, Romstad worries that some students’ places of employment won’t offer the same focus on growth that a school community does. “You’re only in high school this many years to have these kinds of experiences that do stay with you for the rest of your life,” she said. 

Romstad agreed the best option differs by student and location. Financial needs or cultural expectations within the family may push some students to work while in school. For others, Romstad said school officials can help students consider all their options before deciding if the timing is right for a job. Ultimately, they should support the student’s goals: “Our job is just to help them get there.”

In Wichita, Matt Tompkins is a Chick-fil-A area director. He estimates that at least 80-85 percent of the franchise location’s employees are high school students. During the interview process, Tompkins doesn’t ask 14-year-old prospective employees the usual questions about work experience. Instead, he wants to know how the teens serve others in their families or at school. He looks for students who show ambition by participating in sports or other activities, like drama.

But those students typically want to continue with sports or activities, and Tompkins said sometimes this complicates shift scheduling. To compensate, he tries to over-hire. But scheduling mishaps still happen—especially when younger employees forget to ask off ahead of time for school games or other commitments. Tompkins looks at those situations as teaching moments. “It may be a verbal coaching for the first few times that happens, and then as they progress in their journey with us, maybe some of those conversations tighten up,” he said.

Now 15, Cain is already a team trainer for new employees. He plans to try out for sports again once he turns 16 and can expand his available work hours. “I feel like when I’m going to come back these next seasons, I’m going to be so much more of a team player,” he said.

Lauren Dunn

Lauren covers education for WORLD’s digital, print, and podcast platforms. She is a graduate of Thomas Edison State University and World Journalism Institute, and she lives in Wichita, Kan.

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