Disappearing young workers leave summer jobs unfilled in Michigan

By Dan Nielsen
Traverse City Record-Eagle

TRAVERSE CITY (AP) - Rebecca Brown is a rare case; the 18-year-old plans to work every summer through her college years.

"I'm going to work as much as possible to pay down my student loans," said Brown, pledging to spend summers in Traverse City to work.

The Interlochen teen is part of a shrinking pool of young adults available to work during northwest Michigan's busy summer season.

The Traverse City Record-Eagle reports that employers who traditionally rely on young people at starting wages to fill positions at kayak rental businesses, ice cream shops and mini-golf courses have found it increasingly difficult to assemble a full staff.

Subway franchisee Wendy Williams works overtime to help manage her nine stores scattered around Traverse City. She currently seeks six store managers - and a dozen other restaurant workers.

"I'm not getting as many applications as usual," said Williams. "They've gone extremely far down as far as applications."

Northwest Lower Michigan's labor market is tight across the entire spectrum of experience level, but Williams and other employers in the Grand Traverse region say teen workers are particularly elusive this year.

The Tom's Food Markets chain currently seeks three managers, seven full-time associates and up to 30 summer part-time workers, Human Resources Manager Christine Kiblinger said in an email. The company is receiving far fewer applicants in the 16-17 age bracket than it used to, she said.

Oleson's West Store Director Jim Summerville said all the grocery chain's locations currently have unfilled positions.

"It's harder to get people for employment, period," he said. "It's consecutively getting worse each year. Fewer teens apply."

Pirates Cove Adventure Park, a recreation center in East Bay Township that offers mini-golf, go-karts, a ropes course, a zipline and other attractions, has 70 employees between the ages of 16 and 23, said Manager Tim Olson. About 70 percent of those are 16 to 19 years old.

"Everyone in Traverse City is (looking for more help)," Olson said. "You just have to look at all the help-wanted signs."

Some people think fewer teens are working today because today's youth is too busy playing video games or lounging on the beach.

Reality instead may be that teens are working just as hard as previous generations - but with a different focus. In years past, teens toiled at a summer job to earn cash to help pay for tuition. But dramatically rising college costs means summer minimum-wage job earnings simply don't go as far as they once did.

"Summer work is not putting a dent in the cost of higher education," said Vicki L. Beam, owner of Traverse City-based business Michigan College Planning.

Tuition and housing costs can total at least $25,000 a year at a state university in Michigan. A teen who works 40 hours a week for $10 an hour for 10 weeks would earn $4,000 before taxes. Michigan law prevents younger teens from working a full work week, so their earning potential is further reduced.

"They're looking at making $10 an hour - that helps with spending money," Beam said. "They're trying to figure out a good balance, to offset at least the cost of books."

Today's high school students also must focus on accumulating volunteer hours, one factor that college admissions officers use to decide whether or not to accept a freshman.

"High school students need to get their volunteer time in," said Beam. "(Colleges) are specifically asking 'what is your volunteer time,' how many hours they put in and what they learned."

Some high school students take summer school classes to get a jump start on college credits. Others take summer classes to catch up on problem subject areas. Either can throw a wrench into a work schedule.

Olson has learned from his young employees at Pirate's Cove that school extra-curricular activities - especially sports - keep some students out of the summer workforce. Seasons that used to last three or six months have been extended, and summer football practice, baseball league and camps consume large chunks of many teens' summer days.

Some college students take classes at Northwestern Michigan College while home on summer break from universities elsewhere in the state, said Todd Neibauer, vice president for student services and technologies at NMC.

The number of students signed up for NMC summer semester classes has remained relatively steady through the last decade, varying from 398 students in 2008 to 444 in 2018, Neibauer said.

But the raw numbers don't tell the whole story.

"We've seen an increase in the average number of hours they're taking," he said of summer-session students. "The average number of credits has gone up."

A greater number of available Pell grants this summer may contribute to the upswing, he said.

Other college students devote their summer to career-related internships, paid or unpaid, that can act as a stepping stone toward permanent employment.

"If it turns out that they get paid, that's a bonus," Beam said of internship opportunities.

Alex Hogarth graduated from Traverse City West in 2013, from Grand Valley State University in 2017 and now is beginning a 28-month master's program to become a physician's assistant.

"My summer work helped me achieve that," he said.

Hogarth worked each recent summer as a nursing assistant at Munson Medical Center. He's now studying in a GVSU program at NMC's University Center. He hopes his summer work at Munson will help him land permanent employment after he earns his master's degree.

An increasing number of high school students devote summer days to learning more about possible careers, to help them decide on a college major.

"Quite a few are setting up time to job shadow or interview, to get an idea of what a job entails, to get an idea of what that job is all about," said Beam. "A lot of kids don't have a clear understanding of what a career is like."

The disappearing teen worker is not just a local issue.

The U.S. teen (ages 16-19) workforce participation rate in July 2017 was 42.5 percent, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis' Economic Research Division. That statistic has been trending generally down since the recent historic peak of 71.8 percent in July 1978.

The figure stood at 60.3 percent in July 2001 and fell to 41.3 percent in July 2015. Teen employment peaks most years in July.

Williams said family vacations, specialty camps and other activities frequently get in the way of the teens' Subway work schedules.

In summers past, she has hired two or three teen workers at each of her restaurants, but this year she has only a single teen employee at most locations.

Molly Caminata, 17, took a job this summer at Pirate's Cove to help pay for gas and insurance for her car.

"It's nice to get a paycheck," she said. "It's nice to do things and not have to hassle my parents for money."

Working at the entertainment complex is just one part of Caminata's summer plans. She is scheduled to attend a basketball camp. And she's raising a 4-H animal.

Caminata, of Kingsley, said she's dual-enrolled and earning college credits while in high school. She earned a two-year scholarship to NMC, where she plans to study to become a nurse.

Other teens, like 18-year-old Brown, plan to use summer earnings to punch at least a small dent in student debt.

This summer's gig at Kayak, Bike & Brew is only the latest in a string of summer jobs for Brown; last summer she worked at a store in Grand Traverse Mall.

Her workstation is near a garage-size door that usually stands open so customers can wheel their bikes outside before beginning a tour. Snippets of happy, animated conversation drift from the gathering crowd, intertwining with the background beat of energetic pop music pumping from stereo speakers. Customers wear shorts and sunglasses as they choose a bike and browse among T-shirts, hats and other swag.

The crowd is here for summer fun; Brown is keenly focused on earning money and minimizing college expenses.

She took so many college-credit classes before she graduated from Traverse West in 2017 that she earned an NMC associate degree in 2018. She plans to attend a state school in the fall to study journalism and graphic design.

But right now Brown is among the shrinking percentage of teens who report for work every day at a traditional summer job.

Published: Wed, Jun 27, 2018