RED WING, MInn. — As a 16-year-old, Eryka Pluff landed a job hosting at Hastings’ Green Mill Restaurant and Bar.

After working her way up to the catering team lead position, she strove to take shifts at one of her favorite venues: the then-fledgling wedding site Hope Glen Farms in Cottage Grove.

“She was so excited for us, and she was such a hard worker,” said Paula Bushilla, co-owner of Hope Glen Farms. “She said, ‘If there’s ever anything I can do to help, I would love to’ — and that’s why we thought of her later.”

Now 27, Pluff works at the venue as a manager and wedding planner. She hires staff for the popular wedding venue, which has over 90 events per year.

Pluff is one of thousands of Minnesotans who started their careers early — and that number is rising amid a steady decline which began in the 1990s. As the economy recovers from the Great Recession, the United States is experiencing its tightest labor market in years. While teen workforce participation hasn’t bounced back to its pre-recession shape, this summer is one of the best times for teenagers to get a job, said Nick Dobbins, research analyst with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

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As teenagers embark on their first jobs, RiverTown Multimedia spoke with former teen workers and hiring managers to learn how they can make the most out of the tight labor market.

Impact on employers and youth

Whereas employers largely stopped hiring teenagers and inexperienced young people during and immediately following the recession, first-time workers now have more of a chance, Dobbins said.

“The past couple of years suggest that … we could continue to see more teens in the labor market,” Dobbins said.

And while the overall decline in workforce participation rate persists on state and national levels, Minnesota stands out for its high number of teen workers. In 2018, about 50% of people aged 16-19 were employed or looking for work. Meanwhile, the national teen workforce participation rate was about 35%. Only 30% of teens nationally were employed, while about 48% of teens in Minnesota were employed in 2018, DEED data show.

In some of Minnesota’s most seasonal markets, teens represent nearly 20% of the workforce. In the summer of 2017, teens made up over 21% of the workforce in amusement and recreation jobs; 25% in clothing and accessories; 23% in food or drink service jobs, 21% in food and beverage stores and 19% in gas stations, according to DEED data.

“Park High School students helped start our business,” Bushilla said. “From the very beginning, they’ve been helping us with our growth.”

The perks of hiring teens go beyond labor necessity, Dobbins said.

“Someone entering the workforce, especially as a teenager getting their first job, are very often much more flexible. They’re more willing to learn; they don't have bad habits built in,” he said.

Bushilla said her staff members learn and strengthen skills in teamwork, following orders, communication, organization, time management and problem solving.

Perhaps the biggest benefit to starting early is building connections and finding mentors, Pluff said. Her work ethic today has been shaped by influential managers and colleagues.

“If we got into a pinch, he would be back on the line cooking food. That just really resonated with me,” Pluff said of her first boss. “For me, it was watching someone be able to do all that and have that motivation.”

Pluff tries to instill such lessons on her staff now.

“Setting the phone down, being in the moment and thinking of the ‘why’ you’re doing something,” she said. “Is there a way you can improve that?”

Getting the job

For those hoping to step into the workforce, Pluff has some words of wisdom.

For starters, she said, be mindful of your presence around others — you never know when your future boss might be around.

“Even though you might not be at school or with your parents, people are watching you. And stuff follows you,” she said.

When applying, Pluff has a tried-and-true tip: use specific action words in resumes, and tailor your word choice according to the job description.

“If they’re looking for ‘detail oriented,’ you’ve got to say how you were detail oriented at any of your positions,” she said.

Considering whether the job is the right fit can only help, she said. If you can’t find a way to apply the first four job requirements to your resume, for instance, it might not be the right time to apply. Finding a job in line with your passions will help too, she said.

When hiring teens, she said she prioritizes finding applicants skilled in communication, organization and creative problem solving.

“Sometimes you’ve got to be able to think on your toes and things have to be changed, so being flexible is really important,” she said.

She has a few pro tips for the interview: searching online for typical interview questions, and drafting written answers and practicing them — either into a recorder or in front of the mirror to watch body language.

“I take the process really seriously,” Pluff said. “If someone comes unprepared, every employer can tell.”

Finally, she advises young workers to stay mindful of how their work experiences can shape their next. Prioritize building relationships that can last beyond your last day on the job, she said.

“When you are applying for these jobs, these connections — they are going to be with you for kind of the rest of your life, because they are going to refer you,” she said. “You never know where life takes us.”

Additional resources

Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development has additional resources for job seekers at mn.gov/deed. A national directory for people seeking employment, including local programs for young people, can be found at www.careeronestop.org.