The teenage summer job is back in Texas.

For years, employment for high school-age teens has trended downward, marked by anemic recoveries between recession-induced plunges. But summer 2021 saw the biggest jump in employment for this segment of the labor market since the U.S. Census Bureau began keeping such records in the early 90s, and the trend appears to be continuing this summer.

About 326,000 teens in the 14-18 age bracket worked jobs in Texas last summer, the highest it’s been since 2001, according to the U.S. Census’ Quarterly Workforce Indicator survey. Most worked in the service industry.

The state’s total population in that age bracket was around 2 million, according to census population estimates, meaning a little less than 1 in 6 had a job last summer.

Some estimates suggest teen employment peaked in 1979, when nearly 3 in 5 teenagers worked.

Indications suggest that upward trend is likely continuing this summer, as employers tap into the teenage labor market to fill staffing gaps and as inflation tightens family budgets.

Take for instance Gaby Flores, 18, who last summer accounted for one job in the census estimates. This summer she might count for two.

Flores, who is leaving the state for college in August, took two jobs at the beginning of the summer, one at a retail clothing store in a mall and another at a restaurant, together averaging more than 40 hours a week.

She quit the retail job after a few weeks, however, feeling stifled by directions to fold and refold the same shirts again and again. “It felt so good to not have to do that anymore,” she said. She found she prefers the fast-paced environment of her restaurant job.

Her parents don’t want her to work during the first semester of college, but, she said, she’s sure she’ll end up getting another job in a restaurant.

But Flores doesn’t see her experience as typical. “I want the cash, I don’t need it,” she said, unlike some of her teenage co-workers.

Some teens work to support their families, and that number may have risen since the pandemic, some news reports suggest.

But a 2016 analysis of census data also indicates that teens from economically disadvantaged households face barriers to finding jobs, such as lack of access to a car or living in areas with fewer jobs. That analysis, in the data-driven publication FiveThirtyEight, found that teenagers from families that make less than $20,000 per year were half as likely to work as those from families that earn at least $100,000. It also found that Black and Hispanic teens typically see a much slower rebound in employment after a recession than white teens.

Personal discretionary income was down nearly 8% in the first quarter of 2022 over last year, the U.S. Department of Commerce recently reported. More Americans than ever are working two full-time jobs to afford gas and food.

Most teens in Texas work year-round, though historically summer sees a spike in this kind of employment. That spike was particularly big in 2021. But still, for every teen who gained a job in the summer, there were about four employed year-round.

Nadia Stowie, 17, worked at a fast-food restaurant through the past school year. This summer, she got a new job as a barista and expects to continue working as one through her senior year in high school.

“I’m saving money,” she said. “If I don’t have this job, college is going to be hard because I’ll be working multiple jobs, especially if I want to go out of state.”

Working during the school year comes with challenges, but Stowie said she’s learned how to navigate it better. At her old fast-food job, she used to find herself scheduled for shifts that kept her working until close to midnight, then coming home to do homework and wake up early the next morning for school. She said she’s since learned to assert her scheduling requirements to managers.

Stowie said she also saw a lot of younger female workers harassed by older male workers. “It happened to me a couple of times, but I was able to handle it the way it needed to be handled,” she said.

One reason for the accelerated growth in teen summer jobs is that employers are seeking a variety of solutions to their staffing shortages.

Lifeguards, some of whom are teenagers, watch as families swim at Thousand Oaks Family YMCA Sunday.
Lifeguards, including teenagers, watch Sunday as families swim at Thousand Oaks Family YMCA. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

The YMCA of Greater San Antonio, which has long employed teenagers as lifeguards and pool watchers, recently expanded its opportunities for teenagers and lowered the minimum age for lifeguard positions from 16 to 15.

Stacy Oksenberg, chief human resources officer at the organization, said they wanted to help teens who want a job. But like all employers, she said, the YMCA has struggled with finding qualified applicants who want to do seasonal jobs that are part-time and paid with an hourly wage, hence its new offerings of sign-on bonuses and retention bonuses.

Lowering the minimum age to 15 has drawn interest from many teens.

“When we decided to expand our lifeguard positions, we thought we might get ten, maybe a dozen teens,” Oksenberg said. “We got over 50 applicants who were 15.”

Oksenberg said the organization has had success hiring teens. “They’re eager to learn,” she said. And the teens, too, gain valuable experience and a work ethic that benefits them as they go on to college or other jobs.

She said she expects the YMCA’s youth employment to continue to grow.

Waylon Cunningham covered business and technology for the San Antonio Report.