Riley Houtz set his smartphone alarm to wake him with the “ripple” tone sound, which is a series of soft chimes. He didn’t want to disturb the rest of his family when he got out of bed.
The time was 3 a.m.
He awoke, got dressed and groggily walked a short distance to Scratch Biscuit Co., a breakfast place on Memorial Avenue in southwest Roanoke. He arrived early not because he wanted to be first in line for an early-morning ham biscuit, but because he had work to do. A truck’s refrigerated trailer filled with boxes of food needed to be unloaded.
This summer, Riley, a 15-year-old rising sophomore at Patrick Henry High School, got a job working at Scratch. Mostly, he worked in the kitchen, scrambling eggs on the grill and assembling biscuits during the busy morning rush.
“I’m not much of a morning person,” he admitted during a recent interview at his family’s house. “I knew I’d have to get up early … but I didn’t expect 3. At that point, there was no going back.”
Riley learned that the early teen gets the job, especially in this labor market when employers struggle to find enough workers to fill openings. This summer, as the economy rebounded from a severe downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, many low-wage jobs that had been filled by adults in recent years were suddenly available. Teenagers looking for work found the best opportunities in years, according to many national economists.
In May, according to an Associated Press review of Labor Department data, 33.2% of Americans ages 16 to 19 had jobs, the highest percentage since before the Great Recession economic meltdown of 2008. That figure has hovered in the low 30% range all summer.
The unemployment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds — that is, the rate of jobless teens who are actually looking for work but can’t find a job — is 9.6%. That’s the lowest teen unemployment rate since 1953, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
By comparison, the teen unemployment rate in April 2020 was 32.1%.
“There’s never been a better time to apply for a job if you’re a teen,” Mathieu Stevenson, CEO of the online employment site Snagajob, told the AP.
In Virginia, teen unemployment rates have dropped as well. Current data for the Roanoke and New River valleys is scarce, but anecdotally, local business owners and managers say the market is excellent for teen workers.
“Walk around downtown and see all the ‘now hiring’ signs,” said Olivia King, general manager of Mast General Store on Jefferson Street in downtown Roanoke. Her store employed three high school students this year, all of whom are leaving for college soon.
Job openings have been plentiful in some businesses this year, as much of the economy recovered from pandemic-level lows. Workers to fill those jobs have been hard to find, however, for several reasons. Expanded unemployment benefits implemented to help get people through the pandemic, when the jobless rate eclipsed 10.5% nationally, have kept some workers out of the job market. Many workers who left or lost low-wage jobs in 2020 have opted not to return to those jobs or found better-paying work.
Also, the restrictions on temporary worker visas implemented by former President Donald Trump in 2020 kept many foreign workers out of lower-wage American jobs. All of these reasons helped create more opportunities for young workers.
‘They’re like sponges’
Bella Cintron, a 16-year-old rising junior at Patrick Henry, found lots of available jobs when she started looking for work last spring. She took a job at the Roanoke Natural Foods Co-op on Grandin Road, where she does a little bit of everything from working as a cashier to greeting customers and cleaning the seating and dining area at the front of the store.
“When I started looking for a job, a lot of places in Roanoke were hiring,” Bella said. “I like the Co-op, because I get to meet and talk to a lot of people. Being at the front of the store is nice, because you get to experience a little bit of everything. Everybody sees you first. The environment is nice, and the people who work there are very accepting.”
The Co-op employed several high school students this summer, said Elizabeth Wilson, the store’s human resources director. She said that young workers are adaptable and hard-working.
“They can do everything,” Wilson said of the teenage employees. “They’re great kids with great work ethic. I would tell other employers to take a chance on young workers. They have the right attitude and they’re willing to work.”
Nathan Webster, who owns Scratch Biscuit Co., where Riley works in the kitchen, also hired several teenagers this year when older workers couldn’t be found. He praised the teen workers for bringing youthful energy to the workplace.
“Young people get a bad rap these days, but these high schoolers are incredible workers,” said Webster, who also owns the Village Grill and PB’s Po’ Boys. “It’s the energy level. The ones we’ve had are aggressive to learn. You give them a task and they do it. They’re eager to learn something new.”
As King, the Mast General Store manager, put it: “They haven’t developed any bad habits. … They’re like sponges. They soak up so much information.”
They will also work for lower pay than many adults these days. Riley makes the Virginia minimum wage of $9.50 per hour at Scratch. Bella started at $11.25 at the Co-op and has an opportunity to earn up to $13 an hour, an amount that sounds good to her.
“The money, in general, has been nice,” she said.
Before a teen can get a job, they must obtain a worker’s permit, which they can apply for online at the Department of Labor and Industry.
When Riley received his permit, he started work immediately.
“The day I turned in my job application, I went to work that day,” he said.
Learning life skills
The teens get more from work than just paychecks. They learn new skills, such as time management, juggling multiple responsibilities and working as part of a team.
“It’s been awesome,” Riley said. “They’re a good group of people. Very friendly. The work piles up sometimes, but anyone can handle it. I barely knew how to cook going into this. Now, I can grill stuff if I ever need to.”
He has also learned another hard lesson about holding a job: income taxes. Riley admittedly was a bit stunned when he saw how much was taken out of his paycheck. His mother, Catherine Houtz, a Roanoke elementary school teacher, reminded him that those taxes help pay part of her salary.
“That keeps it all in the family,” she joked.
Riley, who also is a competitive swimmer and plays other sports, will cut back on work hours now that school has started. Even though there have been the occasional 3 a.m. wake-up calls to unload delivery trucks, his work schedule his mostly been 7 a.m. until 2 p.m. He plans to work one day each weekend this fall.
“Our biggest focus is he has to keep his grades up and make time for extracurricular activities,” said his mother, who worked as a teenager herself, when she was an employee at the former Bonomo’s women’s clothing store in Roanoke. “This summer has been a terrific experience for him.”
Bella, too, will have to cut back her work hours during the school year. Rather than work a four-day, 24-hour week, she’ll work only a couple of days. She volunteers for nonprofits, has played travel soccer and is a member of school clubs, including the Students for Racial Unity group that she founded. She admits that balancing work and a social life has been hard.
“Being 16 and wanting to socialize has been difficult,” she said. “The freedom is nice. I got my driver’s license, so I have a little more independence. But then I think, ‘Oh, I have a job now.’ It’s really hard to get used to.”
Now that many of these working teenagers are cutting back their hours during the school year, openings could be available for other young people who want to work.
“The Co-op is hiring a ton of people now,” Bella said.