Fewer NKY teens work. What does this mean for our labor force?

Kenton Hornbeck
Kenton Hornbeck
Kenton is a reporter for LINK nky. Email him at [email protected]

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This story originally appeared in the May 26 edition of the weekly LINK Reader. To get these stories first, subscribe at linknky.com/subscribe.

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Jacob Baird was raised with the expectation that he would get a job as a teenager, just like his parents did before him.

Baird, 18, is a student at Northern Kentucky University where he majors in political science. Outside of school, he works as a general laborer at Building Crafts, a contractor in Wilder.

Growing up in what he described as a lower-middle-class, rural area in northern Pendleton County, Baird told LINK nky, meant that getting a part-time job from age 16 to 19 is intertwined in the culture of the area, passed down from generations prior.

“I’d say it’s the rural culture, and we’re lower-middle-class for the most part of my life,” Baird said. “That kind of encourages everybody to teach their kids to work for what they want to accomplish in life, rather than getting things handed to them – and that usually involved them working from a young age and working hard.” 

Jacob Baird. Photo by James Robertson | LINK nky contributor

However, Baird is part of a bloc of adolescents today who are increasingly becoming the exception rather than the rule. While many teenagers still participate in the workforce, the percentage of them who do has steadily declined since the 1970s.

“I don’t do the social side of this, but there was clearly a change in societal expectations and norms around how many teenagers were going to work and participate in the labor force,” said Janet Harrah, senior director of the NKU Center for Economic Analysis and Development.

As the labor force participation rate among teenagers declines, it begs the questions: Is this a bad thing, or is it just a natural shift in economic priorities? What does the declining number of adolescent workers say about the state of Northern Kentucky’s workforce?

In 1978, the labor force participation rate among people age 16 to 19 in the United States reached as high as 58%, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. In fact, from 1971 to 2001, the percentage did not dip below 50%. Today, the rate sits at 37.1%, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The NKU Center for Economic Analysis and Development found that, if teenagers worked at the same rate today as they did in 1989, there would be 3.2 million more workers in the labor force.

The phenomenon also is seen at a regional level. As of March 2023, the labor force participation rates of people age 16 to 19 in Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties all hovered around 37%, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Each of the three counties had  teenage labor force participation rates above 50% in 1990.

Typical jobs for adolescents include part-time gigs such as working as a lifeguard at the community swimming pool during the summer, mowing neighborhood lawns, babysitting the children of busy parents and manning the drive-thru window at a fast-food restaurant.

As teenagers participate less in the labor market, employers are struggling to find potential employees who can fill roles like lifeguard. Last June, the City of Covington Parks & Recreation Department faced a “lifeguard crisis”.

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“At this time last year, we were at about 10 to 15% fully staffed across all three of our aquatic facilities,” Covington Parks & Recreation Manager Ben Oldiges said when asked about the department’s pool staffing issues in 2022.

Covington has three aquatic facilities: Goebel Park Pool near MainStrasse Village, Randolph Park Pool in Eastside and Latonia Water Park/Splash Pad at the Bill Cappel Youth Sports Complex. The lifeguards staffing the two city pools are generally anywhere between 15 to 21 years of age, according to Oldiges. Due to staffing shortages, Covington was nearly forced to postpone opening their facilities last summer.

Covington Parks & Recreation Manager Ben Oldiges at Goebel Park Pool near MainStrasse Village. Photo by James Robertson | LINK nky contributor

We’re just desperate,” Oldiges said in a June 2022 press release. “If we’re not at full strength, the hours our pools are open might be curtailed, or the schedule will have to be shifted, meaning that one or both pools might be closed a day or two each week. That’s the hard truth.”

Luckily for Covington, a last second marketing and hiring blitz averted the crisis. Additionally, the city commission voted to raise the hourly wage of lifeguards to $13 an hour. In May 2021, the hourly starting wage for a Covington lifeguard was $9.50.

Oldiges said the lifeguard hiring process “has gone a lot more smoothly this year.” At the time of publication, Covington had filled approximately 75% of lifeguard positions across all three facilities – far greater than what it was at the same time last year.

“We’re not in the clear yet, but we’re not definitely not sweating as much as we were last year,” Oldiges said.

Covington’s hiring difficulties are a microcosm of a nationwide lifeguard shortage. Bernard Fisher, director of health and safety at the American Lifeguard Association, told ABC last May that part of the reason there are fewer lifeguards is due to the decline in teenagers working summer jobs. Oldiges told LINK nky he personally feels as though lifeguarding has decreased in popularity among teenagers compared to when he was that age.

“I know originally when I was in that age bracket many years ago, everybody’s fighting to work for the municipal governments and fighting to be lifeguards,” Oldiges said. “That’s what was a really desirable job. I think as times have changed, it’s become less so.”

Teenagers in the region are completing more education and spending more time participating in extracurriculars and less time working, according to Lee Crume and David McAleese of BE NKY, the economic development company for Northern Kentucky. Crume is the organization’s president and CEO, McAleese its research director. 

“I think part of the reason … has really been the shift in priorities,” McAleese said. “It’s a function of young people: They’re focusing on education. They’re focusing on extracurriculars. They’re involved in sports. There’s really not as much of that emphasis in terms of getting that part-time job while you’re finishing high school.”

According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data in 2020, in all three Northern Kentucky counties, at least 34% of the population has at least a bachelor’s degree. In Boone County, that number is 38.7%. By comparison, 23% of people had at least a bachelor’s degree in 2000, according to a Boone County Planning Commission demographic study published in 2013. 

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“It’s kind of an old paradigm of 16- to 19-year-olds working,” Crume said.

Harrah shared Crume and McAleese’s sentiment, telling LINK nky that postsecondary education statistically provides people with higher lifelong earnings. The Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities published a report finding that college graduates make $1.2 million on average more over their lifetime compared to those who didn’t graduate from college.

“Seventeen- 18- and 19-year-olds in the past may have graduated from high school and gone straight into the workforce. (They) are now going into college or other postsecondary educational institutions and are concentrating on their education at this age rather than on getting that first job,” Harrah said. “In the long run, that’s going to make them much more productive employees.”

Baird said there is an apparent generational gap in what older adults were told to prioritize when they were teenagers as compared to contemporary teenagers.

“At least in my experience, a lot of the older generations tend to value their work, not even what they’re doing, but the fact that they do work and they work hard. They value that,” he said. “My generation has been pushed to pursue things like higher education.”

Employers also dictate what type of jobs are most desirable for prospective employees. Four of Northern Kentucky’s most important industry sectors are life sciences, information technology, advanced manufacturing and supply chain management. As the region’s economy continues to evolve, requiring a more educated workforce to fill important positions in these critical sectors, many teenagers will gravitate toward the pathway that offers them the best opportunity for employment.

“Say we had just record-high participation for 16- to 19-year-olds,” Crume said. “That doesn’t change the equation for St. Elizabeth and what they need in nurses and skilled staffing or any of the manufacturers that are in our community that are needing a skilled workforce. That number could be off the charts, and it doesn’t change that need.”

Harrah also attributes part of the teenage labor market decline to a “labor market mismatch.” 

“There’s a mismatch between the number of people that want to do this work at the wage rate that employers even can or will pay,” Harrah said.

Despite the labor shortage, Harrah said, the declining teenage labor force participation rate is neither good nor bad. It’s part of a changing regional economy, affected by increasing educational attainment and technological advancements. Establishments like fast-food restaurants and gas stations must adjust to the changing workforce environment to fill open jobs left by the shrinking teenage labor force.

Some organizations have already adapted by raising hourly wages which in turn, have attracted older workers to jobs typically occupied by teenagers and young adults. 

“Many jobs that used to be filled by teenagers are now being filled by people who are anywhere from five to 10 years older,” Harrah said.

Over the past year, average hourly earnings for retail jobs rose 5%, while restaurants and bars rose 7.5%, economics reporter Paul Davidson wrote in USA Today. In addition, the share of 30-and-older job candidates hired in fast food last year increased to 7%, up three percentage points from the end of 2021.

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It’s about adapting to the current circumstances rather than assigning values to the labor force then vs. now, Harrah said.

“It’s just a change,” she said. “The labor market itself – employers themselves are rewarding young people for getting additional education beyond high school. That also means that certain employers are having to adjust their labor force to accept the reality that fewer young people are working until after they get that postsecondary educational experience.”

Despite the evidence that higher education creates better opportunities and outcomes for younger people looking to enter the workforce, that doesn’t mean that working as a teenager doesn’t have value. Teenage workers can develop soft skills such as time management, networking and customer service skills – all of which are transferable to careers.

Baird, for example, said he acquired a great deal of personal value from working a part-time job as a teenager.

“I think it’s really important to at least get on the path to finding your place in the world and learning how to integrate into society, before you get to the point where you have to be thrown into it,” he said. “I voluntarily worked at a very young age, and I think it was beneficial. Being in the workforce that young actually taught me social skills but also a work ethic and integrity. There’s a lot of value that people oftentimes don’t see when they skip out on the workforce.”

Regional nonprofits have developed initiatives and programs to help teenagers better transition into the workforce. BE NKY Workforce Development Manager Kim Spreder told LINK nky her organization is working to increase the number of teenage workers in the regional workforce by coordinating with nonprofits, schools and employers to increase awareness and opportunities.

“(It’s about) those internships and apprenticeships and having the employers come into high schools or even postsecondary schools to talk about, ‘This is what we do, this is what we offer, this is how we can prepare you for that line of work once you graduate,’ ” Spreder said. “The schools are also working diligently to have those those pathways and those programs.” 

Increasing awareness can play a big role in closing the teenage labor gap. Part of the reason Covington was able to fix their lifeguard staffing shortage was due to a targeted marketing effort from the Parks & Recreation Department. According to Oldiges, the utilization of social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook helped them spread their job openings to a broader audience – parents and teenagers included. 

“Engaging their parents to help spread the word so that parents can engage their kids – that worked out really well but really, it was a lot of social media,” Oldiges said.

One thing is clear, according to the experts interviewed by LINK nky: As the Northern Kentucky labor market continues to evolve, all stakeholders in the workforce – including employers and the employees and future employees who make up that labor force, both teenagers and beyond – will need to continue to evolve, as well. 

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