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Why you’re seeing lots of teens at work this summer — but still so many empty lifeguard chairs

New York CNN  —  Your kid’s summer camp is likely fully staffed. The ice cream store near you probably doesn’t have a “help wanted” sign up. But your local swimming pool or nearby beach could probably use a lot more lifeguards to keep it fully open this summer. “Teens are coming back in. They’re more engaged in the job market than their much older brothers and sisters,” said Paul Harrington, a labor economist at Rhode Island College who coauthors an annual report on the teen summer job outlook. The shift is a refreshing change after the pandemic drove many teens away from working during their summer breaks. And yet, lifeguards are in much shorter supply. More teens want to work The share of teenagers who are looking for work or who are currently working, also referred to as the teen labor force participation rate, has been steadily increasing. Heading into the summer, the labor force participation rate for people ages 16 to 19 was 37.4%, according to fresh data from the June jobs report released on Friday. That’s close to the highest level it’s been since 2009. Eric Brotherson, human resources manager at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, an amusement park located in the heart of the Colorado Rockies, is witnessing that firsthand. Sitting 7,100 feet above sea level in the heart of the Colorado Rockies, Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, is home to rollercoasters and attractions ranging from gondola rides and cave tours. The amusement park is celebrating its 25th summer. Courtesy Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park “Hiring right now is way better than it was a year ago,” he said. “We’re in a good spot.” The park aims to employ around 250 people each summer, which in recent years has been a big challenge, Brotherson said. That prompted him to start recruitment efforts for this summer much earlier than in prior years. A little trick he’s learned is to always text applicants before calling them. “We found that so many young applicants don’t have a voicemail or don’t check them,” he said. But when he texts them notifying them that he’ll be calling soon to interview them, they almost always pick up, he noted. Pay increases are certainly helping Andy Pritikin, owner and director of Liberty Lake Day Camp in Bordentown, said in prior summers some staff he greeted at orientations before camp started were nowhere to be found on the first day of camp. After the pandemic caused a spike in mental health problems, particularly for cooped-up teens and 20-year-olds, Pritikin said many parents he heard from told their kids to prioritize their mental health by doing things they enjoy, like going away with friends or relaxing at the beach rather than working. “Now I’m seeing parents pushing their kids to work again,” said Pritikin, who employs around 350 staff members each summer. This year, he said, “there are no staffing issues at all.” But pay increases are also playing a role. Even though he can’t match the wages at service and retail jobs, which have spiked since the pandemic, he has steadily increased pay. Ten years ago, high school-aged camp staff made around $1,000 for an entire summer. Now most are making close to $2,100, not including tips. Andy Pritikin, the owner and director of Liberty Lake Day Camp in Mansfield Township, New Jersey, has struggled to hire enough staff to meet a surge in camper demand since the pandemic. Part of the reason, he said, was that parents weren't pushing their kids to take summer jobs. But this summer is different, he said. Courtesy Frank Burkhauser Overall, inflation-adjusted median weekly pay for teens ages 16 to 19 grew from $289 in 2019 to $336 in 2023, a 13% increase, according to estimates Harrington and his coauthors of the teen summer job outlook report made using government data. On a percentage basis, those gains outpace what all other age groups 20 years and up saw during the summer from 2023 to 2019. The gains have come as employers have become more desperate to hire workers, due to persistent shortages in the labor market. But wages in the overall labor market have started to slow as more positions get filled. Still, even with the wage gains teens have seen, many of them could be taking jobs this summer out of financial necessity. “Teens may be helping out their own households in many cases, saving for the high cost of college,” Andrew Challenger, senior vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement and business research firm, said in a recent statement. He’s forecasting that 1.3 million teens will be employed this summer. That would amount to 300,000 more teen workers compared to last summer, but is still slightly below the average over the past decade. Campers and counselors sit at the campfire ring, Thursday, June 20, 2024, at YMCA Camp Kern in Oregonia, Ohio. Joshua A. Bickel/AP Even with pay bumps, some shortages persist Nationwide, hiring an ample number of lifeguards to staff beaches, pools and waterparks has continued to be a major challenge. Last year, over 300,000 pools were closed or operating at a limited capacity due to a lifeguard shortage, according to the American Lifeguard Association. New York City has had a particularly hard time hiring lifeguards over the last few summers — and this year isn’t looking much better. That’s despite offering returning lifeguards a $1,000 bonus if they stay on through August 25 as well as raising hourly wages to $22, a 3% increase from last summer and a 13% increase from 2022. Additionally, in order to attract more workers, the city eased the requirements this year for lifeguards staffing the shallowest pools. But heading into the July 4 weekend, just 750 lifeguards were working across 50 public pools and eight beaches in New York City. That’s well below the 1,000 lifeguards the city estimates it needs to fully staff those beaches and pools. However, it’s more than there were at the same time last year, New York City Mayor Eric Adams told reporters at a press conference earlier in the week. Lifeguards prepare for the opening of the Astoria Pool in the New York City borough of Queens on June 27, 2024. The pool sees over 3,000 people on a typical summer weekday. Spencer Platt/Getty Images To contend with the shortage, the city has opted to close off sections of beaches and pools rather than closing some locations entirely, Gregg McQueen, a spokesperson for the city’s parks department, told CNN. “We adjust the available swimming space based on daily lifeguard headcount. We’ll always open as much swimming space as possible,” McQueen said. Adams has been advocating for expediting work licenses for migrants and asylum-seekers to ease lifeguard shortages. “It makes no sense that we have jobs that are available, could be filled, and we’re not allowing employees to fill them,” he said. But, nationally, the pay raises going to lifeguards are likely enticing more people to get certified, said Tom Gill, vice president of the United States Lifesaving Association, a nonprofit organization that certifies agencies that hire lifeguards at beaches. “There is not an agency I am aware of that has not raised their pay rate in the last two years substantially,” Gill said. But he acknowledged that raises alone are not enough to combat the shortage of lifeguards. “Lifeguard agencies are facing competition that does not involve physical standards, intense training and the responsibility of the lives of thousands of swimmers in a dynamic environment daily,” he said.