On a recent vacation to a childhood ocean resort town, I walked the boardwalk past arcades and ice cream vendors. People strolled in the warm summer breezes as they have done for many decades. However, one thing was noticeably different. The people on the other side of the boardwalk. Those working for the vendors were different.
Yes, there were the venerable family businesses where the original owner and family tree still ran the business as in days of old, but many of the others were unique. I was once a summer employee on this boardwalk years ago, earning money to get through high school and college, pretty much like everyone else that was there. As I walked by my former employer, I noticed that almost without exception, the young workers were wearing tags on their shirts with names like Olga, Aleksandra, Anastasia and more.
They also had the name of the country listed as well. I happened to run into the long-time owner of the seaside arcade, and asked him about his new summer workforce. What he told me wasn’t shocking, just interesting. Local youth had disappeared from the workplace for the most part. The traditional teen that ran the rides years ago was not to be found. Instead, a massive effort to hire summer workers from Europe and elsewhere was in place. Others have gone to places such as Puerto Rico looking to fill summer vacancies, with little success.
One of the issues facing the seasonal hiring is the constraint upon visas. The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees visa distribution, said Friday that it was providing businesses an additional 15,000 H-2B visas for this summer, offering a modest infusion to the program. Congress declined to lift the annual cap during negotiations in the spring, but gave DHS authority to issue more visas this summer if deemed necessary.
Finding U.S. workers is particularly challenging in today’s tight labor market, with the unemployment rate at 3.9 percent, the lowest since 2000. There is another paradigm at work here as well. While the number of millennials pales in comparison to the generations before it, i.e., the baby boomers, there is still a wonderment of what they are doing for money, referring specifically to high school and college students and others of that age. It’s a complex landscape to some extent, both on the supply of jobs and desire of jobs by teens. Those that want to work are facing macroeconomic issues such as the downsizing of brick and mortar retail stores, once a staple of summer employment.
Additionally, the seniors and internationals are now competing for these same jobs, which is a current anomaly. According to the Atlantic, “Teenagers are exquisitely sensitive to the social norms of their peers. If they see cool older teenagers scooping ice cream during their freshman summer, they’ll really look forward to a job scooping ice cream during their sophomore summer. …That suggests — although it cannot prove — that summer jobs have lost cultural cachet, as the norm has shifted away from working.”
A final cultural thought is that the soccer moms of today, who are infinitely enthralled in watching their 3-year-old kick a ball with other toddlers on a Saturday morning, are not particularly interested in their kids getting a summer job. On a tangential note, I’m not sure my parents, who were avid sports fans, ever came to any of my football games. Just wasn’t the culture back then. With parents instilling a sense of entitlement, today’s teens that don’t want to work don’t have to. Moreover, the Atlantic states, “Their parents aren’t forcing them to get a job. Parents are saying there are other things you can do over the summer that will create value for you … and you don’t have to go flip burgers.” I kind of wish my parents would have said that as I was cleaning stalls at Bowie Race Track in the summer of ’79.