Summer Workers Could Still Be Scarce

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Despite a rebound in labor supply, employers such as restaurants, pool clubs, and camps are still trying to increase headcounts for the summer season. They may need to get creative.

Memorial Day Weekend marks the unofficial start to summer–and crunch time for companies looking to hire seasonal employees. Despite pressures from a still-tight labor market, employers are finding ways to bulk up for the busy season.

Teen employment–a crucial part of the summer workforce–rebounded in the summers of 2021 and 2022 after a pandemic plunge, and in July 2022 reached its highest level since 2008, according to the global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

But this year, some strains are already evident: The firm predicts slightly lower job gains for teens this summer due to a potential economic slowdown, but there are still plenty of opportunities available. Indeed, the unemployment rate for 16-to-19-year-olds rests just above 9 percent–which is a remarkably low number compared with the past 20 years.

“Teens who want jobs are basically working right now,” Andrew Challenger, senior vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, said in the firm’s outlook report.

And yet, there’s still a larger number of employable teen workers in the pool–the largest teen labor force since 2009–and a rebound in legal immigration after a pandemic slowdown that could add workers, says Ron Hetrick, senior labor economist at the labor analytics firm Lightcast. For 2023, the federal government nearly doubled the number of H-2B visas available for temporary, or seasonal, nonagricultural workers.

In addition, wages and salaries increased 5.1 percent between March 2022 and 2023. “The higher pay rates that we’ve seen start to go up through last year, they’ve stayed high, and it’s still a very attractive pay rate, especially if you’re living at home,” Hetrick says.

Overall, “things are getting a little bit better,” Hetrick says, “but there are still ‘Help Wanted’ signs everywhere.”

Especially for jobs that require a certification, such as lifeguard. For Mark Transport, owner and director of Crestwood Country Day Camp in Melville, New York, lifeguards are the most difficult candidates to find by far. To get back to pre-pandemic levels for trained lifeguards, a 200 percent increase in applications would be necessary for this summer, says Bernard Fisher II, director of health and safety for the American Lifeguard Association.

Transport says that businesses need to think outside the box to secure these tough-to-fill positions. For instance, Crestwood started paying training fees for kids who come to work for the camp instead of waiting for already-trained lifeguards to apply. Transport estimates that this costs between $400 and $500 per lifeguard, and he expects to pay this fee for approximately 24 lifeguards this year. “Bottom line is: If you need to get people, you do it,” says Transport.

With the stiff competition for seasonal workers, employers are leaning on their company culture to attract candidates, says Tim McMahon, president and CEO of the BarCo Brands, a restaurant group that owns multiple eateries on the Jersey Shore. “There are just far fewer people for those jobs, and they’re going to gravitate toward the employers of choice, employers that create a good employee experience,” McMahon says.

For BarCo, that means competitive wages, flexibility in scheduling, and looking out for workers’ best interests. For instance, McMahon says the company is scrupulous in trying to schedule the exact right number of servers per shift to ensure that the guests are happy and that servers finish the night with solid tips. This year, the company has twice the amount of applicants needed to fill their seasonal positions.

“You have to have that willingness to put their experience up there–maybe not primary–but right up there with the guest experience,” McMahon says.

McMahon also recommends working the job boards–Indeed, LinkedIn, etc.–and showing up at local job fairs and colleges to spread the word about open positions. At Crestwood, Transport found a particularly successful tactic: employee bonuses for referrals for seasonal positions. When a member of the Crestwood team refers someone and they are hired, that employee receives between $100 and $200, he says.

“It has made a difference, because there’s a limited pool of people out there to work,” Transport says.