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Rising wages draw teen workers across region

Teen employment rates, while historically lower than for older people, have rebounded faster since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

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Kellie Wilts and Grace Zeidler, both second-year students at Ridgewater College in Willmar, Minnesota, are following a regional and nationwide trend of youth going back into the workforce.
Submitted photo by Tammy Howe
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EDITOR’S NOTE: It's called "The Great Resignation," a seismic upheaval in the workforce that is reshaping today's economy. This week, Forum Communication Co. reporters will look at The Great Resignation's profound effects on workers and businesses across the region in our multi-part series, “Help Wanted.”

ST. PAUL — Teenagers like Aiden Heinle, a junior at Jamestown High School in North Dakota, are becoming a larger part of the workforce after years of decline and the employment fallout sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Heinle's been working at Hugo's, a grocery store, for about a year and a half.

He said when the pandemic started, school went mostly online, and they didn't have much homework, so his mother wanted him to find work to keep him out of trouble and have a little cash in his pocket. It makes for busy days.

"Mainly, most of my day is school and hockey. Every once in a while I will work just 7 to 10," Heinle said. "It’s the main thing of eating, getting any rest when I do have any time and after hockey just making sure I get to work right away versus finding time to study for tests and do homework."

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All three quarters of 2021 saw an increase of teen employment levels, with the third quarter showing a 32.5% employment rate, the highest since 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Kellie Wilts, a second-year agricultural student at Ridgewater College in Willmar, Minnesota, said most of the agriculture students are employed, with many working full-time while in school. She's started at KMRS/KKOC Radio while in high school.

"I'm keeping it through college just to make some extra money on the side," she said. "It's giving me communication skills and something else to put on a resume."

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Making that little bit of money is also why Grace Zeidler, another second-year agricultural student at Ridgewater, is working at Menards.

Despite growing evidence of increase teen employment, she said she's heard co-workers talk about how they don't see a lot of the younger generation working.

"My parents didn't pay for any part of my college. I did that on my own," she said. "It was taught at a young age that hard work is important and so I've worked my butt off to get to where I am."

Employment nears pre-pandemic level

National federal data suggest teens have been more active in the labor market in 2021 than they were in 2019, said Luke Greiner, a regional analyst for central and southwest Minnesota for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

In central Minnesota, teens make up 27% of accommodation and food service industry jobs, a number that would translate similarly in Minnesota statewide, according to Greiner. The median pay for those workers was $10.80 in 2020.

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In Willmar the grocery store Aldi's is hiring people starting at $17 an hour for the holidays. Their normal starting wage is $15 an hour.

"As wages continue increasing, particularly for entry level occupations, the opportunity cost of not working increases. I think teenagers are seeing and responding to the employment opportunities in their communities," Greiner wrote in an email. "Working even an entry level job can provide meaningful wages with the wage growth we are seeing from employers. Of course, wage growth needs to exceed inflation in order for workers to experience real wage growth."

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 48% of those age 16 to 19 years old were in the North Dakota labor force in 2019, the latest year the bureau has data posted.

The pandemic caused a drop in all employment, with teenagers being hit especially hard: 23.3% were employed in the second quarter of 2020, compared with 71.5% of adults.

Since 1948, the earliest year the bureau has data posted online, the teenage employment rate has hit or exceeded a 50% employment rate twice, in 1953 and 1978.

But teens have seen a steeper increase in employment rates in 2021, returning to the pre-pandemic level, while older workers lag behind.

“I assume this is connected to the fact that COVID's personal health risks tend to be less severe for younger people,” wrote Aaron J. Sojourner, associate professor at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, in an email. “Young workers are seeing exceptional wage acceleration, exceptional for that group over time and exceptional across age groups now.”

Since 1948, teen employment has increased and decreased mostly along recession lines, the exception being between 2001 and 2009 which saw mostly continued dropping employment rates among teens.

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“Teens are marginal workers, they are laid off first when demand weakens and pick up fast when it strengthens,” Sojourner wrote.

Masaki Ova of the Jamestown (North Dakota) Sun contributed to this story.

Mark Wasson has been a public safety reporter with Post Bulletin since May 2022. Previously, he worked as a general assignment reporter in the southwest metro and as a public safety reporter in Willmar, Minn. Readers can reach Mark at mwasson@postbulletin.com.
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