Amid labor shortage, demand for high school workers soars

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

American teen unemployment rate is lower than it was just before the COVID pandemic.

As companies across the nation are struggling to find workers, high school students are in high demand. Career tech students in particular are seeing big wins in increased pay, better benefits, and better working conditions, as teenagers are plugging some gaps in the nationwide labor shortage.

Ohio’s overall unemployment rate has dropped to 4.2% in March 2022, approaching the pre-pandemic low of 3.9% in 2019. National unemployment for teens aged 16 to 19 has fallen below pre-pandemic levels, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported, from 11.5% in February 2020 to 9.6% in July 2021. The last time it was lower than 9.6% was 8.6% in November 1953.

Students enrolled in technical programs are especially in high demand, as companies look to hire them either as soon as they graduate or even while they’re still in school. At the Greene County Career Center, the number of students going out on internships and pre-apprenticeships has ticked up by about 15%, even as companies’ requests for student workers have jumped by much more.

Ohio’s government has doubled down on promoting technical schools in recent years and incentivizing employers to hire high school students.

“We saw this coming about three years ago,” said GCCC curriculum supervisor Brett Doudican.

Current legislation working its way through Columbus would further incentivize hiring young people and give businesses financial incentives to hire and train high school students enrolled in technical programs.

Senate Bill 166 would create a two-year pilot program that would allow a workers’ compensation premium discount to an employer that offers work-based learning. The bill also gives a 15% tax credit for employers from wages paid to students in a career-technical education program.

Students are required to maintain a certain GPA and attendance requirements, as well as be reliable, punctual and professional on the job, but companies also have a responsibility to provide the student with career-specific work, training and safety instruction, and the student must be covered by worker compensation.

Career center students typically start making between $15 and $18 an hour, Doudican said, and companies are getting creative with other perks and benefits to attract student workers.

“We always tell the employers that they’ve got to compete with Target,” Doudican said. “Or, provide benefits. Are they going to pay for schooling? Cell phones? What are they going to do for employees?”

Increased incentives for hiring students also means students can earn more and have better choice when it comes to a best-fit employer. Current Greene County Career Center senior Zoe Evans works at the Xenia YMCA as a fitness counselor, and said she quit a previous retail job over bad management.

“I specifically chose the Y because I wanted to be part of people’s fitness routines,” said Evans, who plans to study occupational therapy. “I’m able to work with people and create their ActivTrax (workouts) for them and be a part of their fitness routines.”

Other industries like retail, food service, hospitality, and other seasonal jobs are also looking to hire teenage workers, but should also give some thought to what they offer young employees, said Xenia Chamber of Commerce President Donna Saraga.

“Students aren’t cheap labor. They shouldn’t be treated like cheap labor,” Saraga said. “Just working as a cashier, there’s a whole lot more to retail than that.”

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