The Disappearing Summer Job

Some of my best memories involve toiling away at various summer jobs

By Kellyn Brown

As summer looms, “We’re Hiring” signs are popping up around the valley as area businesses, especially those in the tourism and hospitality industries, staff up for the busiest months of the year. But there’s a problem: the pool of employees continues to shrink.

A strong economy is partially to blame. Unemployment rates are near historic lows and most workers would opt for a permanent over temporary position. But that’s only one factor. Another is that summer jobs — those spent lifeguarding and flipping burgers and camp counseling — are no longer attracting teenagers.

The percentage of teens working summer jobs dropped precipitously in the wake of the Great Recession, which is understandable since many of them were competing for jobs with adults. But even as the economy recovered, many young people remained out of the workforce.

According to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, just 35 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds had summer jobs in 2017. That’s compared to 51.7 percent at the turn of the century.

For decades, the report says, “teen summer employment followed a fairly regular pattern: rising during economic good times and falling during and after recessions, but generally fluctuating between 46 percent (the low, in 1963) and 58 percent (the peak, in 1978).”

Until now. Pew cites a variety of factors for the decline, including shorter breaks between school years and more students spending their summers working on graduation requirements or college applications. Nonetheless, fewer teens are working. And that’s a shame.

Some of my best memories involve toiling away at various summer jobs, earning some extra cash and befriending other seasonal hires along the way.

My senior year in high school, I was lucky enough to land the quintessential summer gig at the Wonderland Family Fun Center on Spokane’s north side. My tenure began by scraping gum off the sidewalks and repainting railings, but within weeks I was “promoted” to running the go-carts. Along with maintaining the carts and clearing the track of dead bugs, I oversaw all the races.

Once, after I kicked a man off the course for causing multiple go-cart pileups, he threatened to punch me. I had to radio for backup. Another time, the track got so hot it began melting my shoes. It was good, clean fun, and I let my high school buddies race for free.

Another summer, I was hired as a seasonal employee in Yellowstone National Park. I was on the “maintenance crew,” which was a nice way of saying garbage man. For 10 hours a day, four days a week, I rode on the back of a packer, emptying hundreds of garbage bins a day.

It was one of the best summers of my life. I stayed in cheap government housing with no internet, television or phone, and I had three days off each week to explore every corner of the park. From tourists to concession employees, I met people from all over the world.

While emerging trends, such as the increasing number of students taking summer classes, are preventing some of them from getting a summer job, others simply don’t want to work.

“Since the mid-1990s, the share of teenagers who say they wish they were working has fallen by about 50 percent,” according to BLS statistics reported on by the Atlantic. Lagging interest can partially be attributed to a cultural shift. Since fewer teens’ peers are working, the story continues, “summer jobs have lost cultural cachet.”

And what once was a rite of passage for many teenagers is disappearing.