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Three ways to fight the summer job gap among rich and poor teens

  • Joanna
  • August 31, 2016

The stats-savvy journalism team at Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight has taken on the subject of summer jobs for teens. If you’ve been following this issue, as we have, you already know that summer teen employment is a key predictor of adult employment, and that fewer than one in three American teens is now employed during the summer, down from more than half in 2000.

The analysis by FiveThirtyEight’s economics writer Ben Casselman, though, puts light on an even more lamentable part of this problem. The teens who really need jobs aren’t getting them. Indeed, young men and women whose families make less than $20,000 a year are less than half as likely to be working as those from families making $100,000 or more each year. And while employment has rebounded slightly among kids from wealthier families in recent years, it hasn’t budged much at all for poorer teens.


One big reason is that privilege simply begets privilege; teens from families with more social and business relationships can lean on those connections when it’s harder to find work.

Another big factor is that teens who lined up for low-wage and low-skill summer jobs during the recession often found themselves competing with laid off adults. It takes only a glance across the counter at a local fast food restaurant to know the adultification of these sorts of jobs didn’t end when the recession did. Even before the recession, though, these were rarely the sorts of jobs taken by teens from wealthier families; they were always more likely to get jobs in recreational, office and retail settings — a gig as a lifeguard at a local pool, a stint filing papers in a relative’s office, or a job at a boutique shop that needs extra help to meet the summer rush.

And, of course, it’s well established that children from poorer families are far less likely to benefit from top teachers, rigorous courses, athletic opportunities, and extracurricular activities of all kinds. So even if they do even get a chance to go head-to-head with a more privileged applicant for a job, they’re  more likely to get beaten out in the resume department and less likely to have the sorts of skills employers look for in an interviewee, such as poise and self-confidence.

To these barriers, Casselman adds that teens from less privileged backgrounds are less likely to have a car, limiting the radius within which they can find employment; are more likely to live in areas that have not rebounded as much since the recession; and are more likely to face discrimination based on race, class or other factors.

These obstacles are not going to go away organically, but they’re also not intractable. Here are three easy things that any state or community can do to help the teens who really need work experience get it.

Tiered minimum wages
Minimum wages are rising across the nation, and that’s good for a lot of low-wage workers. But Casselman points out that employers may not see teen workers as worth $10 or more per hour, especially when there are plenty of adults with more experience and more skills who are willing to take similar jobs. Employers who can get a bargain on a teen worker, though, are likely to do so. That’s what happens in Australia, where employers can pay younger workers a percentage of the national minimum through the age of 21 — a system that encourages companies like McDonald’s to rely more on younger workers, offering them more work experiences in their teens. Several U.S. states also have lower-than-the-minimum “training wage” provisions for employees with no previous experience, but the regulations on these wages can be complicated and not worth it. Cities and states that are already in the process of raising minimum wages should consider a reasonable and simplified system that permits employers to pay slightly lower wages to teens.

Benefits to employers who offer summer jobs
As the U.S. military has sized down in recent years, the United States has recognized its duty to ensure veterans have the best possible shot at employment. One of the most effective paths to lowering unemployment among vets is the Returning Heroes Tax Credit, which provides incentives of up to $5,600 for hiring unemployed veterans, and the Wounded Warriors Tax Credit, which nearly doubles that incentive for employers who hire vets with service-connected disabilities. These credits, along with state-by-state initiatives, have been extremely effective in bringing unemployment among veterans down to long-term lows.  

A more modest set of incentives could be employed to raise teen employment. For small businesses, a tax credit of just a few hundred dollars could be exceptionally motivating to hire a teen worker. For larger employers, the effect of a few hundreds dollars across a business empire could amount to a windfall — for shareholders and young workers alike.

Mentorships aimed at building connections
Not everyone who wants to help low-income teenagers find a job is in the position of offering employment. But millions of Americans are in a position to help build social or business connections for young workers who desperately need them — simply by offering an opportunity to meet, once in a while, for mentorship.

Mentorship programs are reasonably easy to get started — and are great places to start. (It’s important to adhere to best practices, of course.) And while many mentoring programs are contact-intensive, they don’t have to be. Even a five-minute phone call, once a week, that serves as a quick check-in and opportunity for advice can pay exceptionally big dividends — especially when mentors become aware of job opportunities that might traditionally go to more teens from more privileged backgrounds.