Staffing shortage? Bring in the teenagers: Workers ages 16 to 19 make up 33% of the US workforce

PITTSBURGH — As businesses have taken “closed indefinitely” signs out of their windows and reopened their doors, the landscape of a post-pandemic workforce is changing and depending on an unexpected demographic – teens.

Teenagers have become one of the largest segments of the working population. The Associated Press reported that, in May, 33.2% of teens ages 16 to 19 were in the national workforce, the highest figure for teen workers since the Great Recession of 2008.

“Post-pandemic, we are facing the biggest staffing crisis probably in my lifetime, and I’ve been in the business for almost 50 years,” said John Longstreet, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association. “Many people left the industry and found jobs doing other things. Additionally, a lot of restaurants were not able to make it through the pandemic.”

Establishments have found it difficult to serve all of the people who are eager to make up for time lost to the pandemic, Longstreet said.

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“The biggest challenge that restaurants have now is getting enough team members in the house to be able to serve all of the guests that want to come in,” Longstreet said. “There is a lot of pent-up demand.”

Before COVID-19, there were about 580,000 Pennsylvanians employed in restaurant and food service jobs, according to the restaurant association. During the pandemic, up to two-thirds of those jobs were temporarily or completely eliminated.

National Restaurant Association reviewed federal Bureau of Labor Statistics data and found that restaurants added 186,000 jobs nationwide in May.

Still, the industry is struggling to find enough workers.

Desiree Singleton, owner of Harvest Moon Coffee & Chocolates in Tarentum, has a staff of workers ages 16 to 25.

One of them is Courtney Collins.

Collins, 19, has been in the workforce since age 15. She is still employed with the catering company she started with, Chef & I Catering in Brackenridge. But two years ago, at 17, Collins picked up a second job at a diner before finding work at Harvest Moon when the shop opened amid the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

“The way the economy is now, things are not as cheap anymore for people my age,” Collins said. “I started working to make sure I had money aside for school, a car, and am able to do things that I want.

“I think really it is expected for young people to work now because of the major focus on money. And to many, money equals success.”

Nick Moretti, 17, is not in the restaurant industry but, rather, retail.

He is nearing the end of his second year at Learning Express Toys in the Galleria at Mt. Lebanon. The rising senior at Mt. Lebanon High School said having a job at his age is normal, even expected.


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