Organizations explore new ways to attract teenage workers

SUMMER STAFF: Teens assemble for a photograph during the city's Parks & Recreation Department’s 2022 summer camp training. Photo courtesy of Jessica Johnston

This year, 17-year-old Parker Taylor is working his third consecutive summer as a lifeguard at Sliding Rock, the popular natural waterslide in Pisgah National Forest. Before that, he helped his grandmother, a lifeguard trainer and swim instructor, and worked as a lifeguard on his own for the Brevard Athletic Club. 

“I started talking to my son when he was probably 12 or 13 that he was going to have to start saving up money if he wanted to purchase a car,” says his mother, Allison Taylor, an event planner and assistant chief of the volunteer North Transylvania Fire Rescue. She herself had worked three summers at Sliding Rock as a teen to pay for her own car and college tuition.

“I didn’t have a choice, and my son knew that he didn’t have a choice,” she explains.

Allison agreed to match the money Parker raised above $2,000 and to pay for half of his gas and insurance. He now drives a 1999 Toyota Avalon with more than 200,000 miles on it. 

While Allison could not afford to pay for Parker’s car on her own, she also wanted her son to work. “Whether kids have a necessity to work or not for financial reasons, I feel that it’s so beneficial to start instilling that work ethic,” she says. 

According to the Pew Research Center, the number of teenagers working summer jobs has notably declined since the turn of the 21st century. Between 1948 and 2000, about half the teen population worked as lifeguards, waited tables, worked at amusement parks or served as camp counselors, among other jobs. Last summer, the youth employment rate was closer to 32%, up from the pandemic low of 29.6% in 2020. 

Here in Western North Carolina, many employers are appealing more to teenagers this summer, hoping to fill hiring gaps created by older workers electing to pursue remote work after COVID-19. “We pivoted into embracing a younger demographic,” says Jessica Johnston, the facility manager for the Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Southside Center, after seeing a post-pandemic dip in older seasonal workers applying to staff summer camps.

Whether there are enough teenagers like Parker Taylor with the time and inclination to fill those jobs remains to be seen. 

Filling the staffing gap

Aimee Kuelling, marketing and communications director for the YMCA of Western North Carolina, is finding it difficult to recruit teenagers to staff the Y’s six pools over five locations: Asheville (two pools), Black Mountain, Corpening, Hendersonville and Reuter. Ideally, the pools are open daily from 6 a.m.-8:30 p.m., but in Black Mountain, the pool is still closed on Sundays due to a lack of staffing.

“It’s a lot of hours to fill, which is part of the struggle,” Kuelling says. 

VACATION PAYCHECK: Teen workers line up at the YMCA of Western North Carolina. Courtesy of the YMCA

She says that pandemic lockdowns played a significant role in the current hiring shortage among teenagers. “People who were taking swimming lessons for a couple of years would then graduate into becoming lifeguards. So, you have two almost three years, to some extent, where class sizes were smaller,” she says. 

She also points out that most of the Y’s youth swim and soccer programs stop when kids turn 12 or 13. “We do have some for 14- and 15-year-olds, but by then, they’re starting to be more active at school,” she says. As a result, a gap exists between the oldest youth swimmers and the 15-year-old hiring minimum age for lifeguard positions.

To bridge this gap, the organization is offering a teen-oriented Career Club at the Hendersonville facility. Attendees will learn about different summer jobs, tips for writing resumes and cover letters, and advice on preparing for interviews. 

“It’s just getting connected with that age group,” Kuelling says. 

It’s also starting to shift its social media outreach away from Facebook to TikTok, as well as in-person outreach at Asheville High School. A summer job fair takes place every year, and job information is available on the school’s website and digital billboards, says Dillon Huffman Asheville City Schools public information officer. Full- and part-time jobs in areas like retail, restaurants and other small businesses are advertised, as well as internships. Huffman says that money is the primary motivation for students, followed by getting experience for college. 

The Y pays beginner lifeguards between $11 and $13.50 an hour, depending on location. In addition, staff members receive the $300 certification for free and earn a summer bonus. 

Repeat attendees

When Johnston attended the summer job fair at Asheville High, several alumni of the Grant Center’s summer camps came up to her, eager to apply for a position as a camp counselor.

“I have these kids popping up, and they’re like, ‘Miss Jessica, I want to come work,’” she recalls. When the Asheville Parks & Recreation Department staff members interview these students, Johnston says, they frequently mention how much they loved attending camp and how they want to create that experience for other kids.

“They’re just so socially minded,” she says. 

One such student is Saril Scott, a senior at the School of Inquiry and Life Sciences at Asheville. She began working at the Grant Center in 2020, when she was 15, and has returned every summer since, as well as working for the after-school programs.

“I have always loved working with kids,” Scott tells Xpress. “The Grant Center especially has shown me the lack of support some of the kids and community get, and my passion is to become a social worker.”  

“This job is super fun, super tiring and super impactful,” Johnston says. Even the youngest staff members help shape the campers’ day-to-day activities. “Long term, it helps them to kind of work through trial and error,” she says of this responsibility.

There are other benefits besides the $ 15-an-hour wage. Staff members accompany the campers on exciting field trips like rafting. They also stay on the payroll, so that opportunities for work are open to them anytime they are on college breaks or over holidays. 

To lower barriers to hiring, the department greatly simplified its hiring process. Before, all city of Asheville jobs used one standard application that ran multiple pages, requesting work history, references and other information more suited to adult job seekers.

“Odds are, if you’re in high school, I know your teachers,” Johnston says. Now, the application contains only a few basic questions, including the option to request contact via text rather than email or phone. 

Money matters

Some schools also are teaching employment and financial literacy during the school year in anticipation of students pursuing summer work. In the last few weeks, financial adviser Jim Brunner has shared his financial knowledge with classes at FernLeaf Community Charter School in Fletcher, where his daughter is in seventh grade. 

The kids raised wide ranging questions from how to set money goals and save, to curiosity about stocks and investments. Brunner’s focus for the students was related to building good habits around simple saving, spending and discussions about money. Some students already have summer jobs, he says, such as doing yard work for neighbors or helping out at businesses owned by family or friends. 

He wanted to share his perspectives after hearing about the financially focused curriculum his daughter has been doing this year. She’s learning how to create a budget as well as how to talk about money at home.

Brunner already is teaching his children the value of working that he learned from his first jobs detailing cars at an auto dealership and caddying at age 14. When his son asked for $150 Rollerblades to play roller hockey, for instance, he offered to pay him what he would pay outside help to mow the lawn. His son earned the money in four weeks. 

“My daughter’s on that track now, too,” he says, eager to earn money for her own Rollerblades.

 Addressing the challenge

According to the Pew Research Center, many teenagers are replacing summer jobs with unpaid internships, community service projects and sports to enhance their college applications. Scott says this is true of her peers at Asheville High. 

“Most of my friends and people I go to school with usually have jobs, but they work a minimal amount of time,” she says. 

Allison Taylor says she notices the impact of teens no longer working in the people she hires for her event-planning company. 

“That’s part of our workforce issue,” she says. “I just see so many adults that don’t have the endurance to work and do chores and do life.”

 “Let’s embrace this challenge and really focus on getting younger kids in here to work for us,” Johnston says. “Let’s help the next generation of Parks & Rec professionals in our centers.”


Editor’s note: This article was revised June 27  to better describe the information about money that Jim Brunner provides to kids.


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About Sara Murphy
Sara Murphy lives in Leicester. Her work has appeared in 100 Days in Appalachia, Facing South, Polygon, and Lifehacker.

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