Record number of teenagers seeking summer jobs 'plugging the gap' for employers

The pandemic is having an effect on seasonal work this year – the return of the teenager

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Ronan Curtin placed an ad for student summer jobs two weeks ago. The operations manager at Doyles Veg Prep (DVP) in Dublin 22 was looking to fill 10 general operative positions “lifting, moving, pressing, peeling, chopping . . . loading machines, operating machines.” The applications have been pouring in: over 400 CVs so far, with more landing in his inbox every day.

“I’ve never seen that level of interest before. I’ve hired more students in the last three weeks than I have in my recollection ever, because of the lack of labour in the Irish market. They’re plugging the gap in the market for us,” says Curtin.

There had been concerns that the rite of passage that was the teenage summer job was vanishing. There are no precise figures for the number of seasonal or summer jobs taken up by teens. But in 2014, there were nearly 29,000 more 15 to 24-year-olds employed over the summer months than had been at work in the previous quarter, suggesting a buoyant seasonal jobs market. The following year, 22,000 more young people were employed over the summer and the rate declined until 2017 when there were 8,000 fewer young people at work in the summer months than there had been in the previous quarter, according to International Labour Organization data. It looked like the teenage summer job might be gone for good.

But since then, the pendulum has swung in the other direction. In 2019, 18,400 more young people were in employment over the summer.

This summer is seeing one unexpected side effect of the pandemic play out in a mini-jobs boom in certain sectors for secondary school students, who are backfilling seasonal roles that would normally have gone to people who are now on the pandemic unemployment payment (PUP), or migrant workers who can’t travel. “The single biggest contributing factor as far as I’m concerned is the PUP payment,” says Curtin.

He interviews applicants personally, bringing them onto the factory floor so they can see where they would be working. “I’ll know within 10 seconds. It depends how big their eyes get.”

In general, teenagers “definitely want to work. They definitely want to earn money.” The third-level students are typically focused on “amassing as much money as they can to see them through” college. If their parents are paying their rent, “they don’t want to go back [TO THEM]looking for an extra 20 quid.” Younger teens want money for video games, fashion, “anything from protein supplements to having the right clothes and the right phone.”

The work is well paid but sometimes physical, which doesn’t put his young workforce off. “I’ve one girl here at the moment who was footing turf in a bog in Athlone for the last two summers, and she wanted to do something different.”

At Greenhill fruit farm in Enniscorthy, Eamonn Crean has hired 150 staff for the summer, about a third of them teenagers, which is by far the largest number he has employed. “The third-level students have disappeared off the face of the planet. They had scuttery little jobs and now there’s no way they’re coming off the Covid payment for [a job that pays] €400 or €500 a week. They’re gone out of it,” he says.

The season starts a bit too late for Leaving Cert students. So that leaves 16- and 17-year-olds to step into roles including plant husbandry, working in the pack house, manning the “strawberry boxes” on the side of the road. The job of fruit picker typically goes to more experienced workers. Everyone starts on the minimum wage of €10.20 an hour, whatever their age. “We try to build a good team and pay fairly,” he says.

Some of the teenage workers come back summer after summer. At DVP, one former teenage operative is now the senior engineer. Crean’s own nephew, Edmond Nolan – who goes by Eddie – started at 12 or 13, selling fruit dipped in chocolate first at the Dublin Tall Ships festival. He worked “nearly every weekend of every summer until [HE]was 16 or 17”. When Gaelic football took over – he plays for Roscommon – he needed his weekends free, and switched to working the strawberry stands. By last summer, at the age of 21, he had been promoted to regional sales manager, overseeing the strawberry stands across the Midlands. He has just finished a BSc in property economics and starts on the graduate programme at Ernst and Young in the autumn. Having a summer job “when you get into the real world, stands to you. Dealing with the public and interacting with customers, it was a great skill to have.”

Teenagers are also flocking to jobs in the reopened hospitality industry, says Lisa Fitzgerald, co-owner of the Stable Yard in Waterford city. She will employ about 80 people to work in her restaurant, coffee shop, ice cream shop, bakery and soon-to-launch deli in the summer months. About half the workforce this summer are teenagers. “Recruitment is difficult with the world that we live in,” she says. “The 16- to 18-year-olds are the ones that are applying in their multitude. They are extremely enthusiastic.”

The teenagers going for jobs this summer are generally more capable than their slightly older counterparts – something she attributes to growing up in the shadow of the recession. A few years ago, she remembers one teenager asking her “How do you use a mop? These children had never had to lift a hoover at home.” A part-time job, “even if it’s six hours on a Saturday, it’s a great grounding for life”.

Employers are more reliant on the teenage workforce than ever. But is working during the summer holidays good for teens – aside from the economic benefits? One of the aims of the Protection of Young People (Employment) Act 1996, was to safeguard the health and welfare of children young people, and encourage them to stay in school. It limited the hours teenagers could work, so that 15-year-olds can do a maximum of 35 hours per week in the summer; eight in term time. Sixteen and 17-year-olds can’t work before 6am in the morning or after 10pm at night. When it was introduced, then leader of the Progressive Democrats Mary Harney warned that it would hold young people back from developing important skills. “The reality is that our school system is so bookish and academic that fewer young people have an enterprise culture,” she said.

Little analysis has been done since on whether this prediction came to pass, or on the value of summer jobs generally. Alan Barrett, director of the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) points to studies done by the Department of Economics at Northeastern University in the US, which bear out Nolan’s positive experience. “A number of American cities tried programmes where inner city kids from more deprived backgrounds were set up in summer jobs.” The results were very encouraging, in terms of developing human capital, exposing students to the world of work and, in the longer term, improving school attendance and job prospects. He speculates that the benefits to children from disadvantaged backgrounds may be greater than for children with a more “linear path through school and college”.

But there is also, he cautions, a benefit to downtime over the summer, especially when their lives during term time tend to be heavily scheduled.

Jack Nolan, who was formerly involved with the Irish Secondary Schools Union and is now a member of Labour Youth, says that most of his peers want to work, but the fact that employers can pay sub-minimum wage levels to teenagers can be a deterrent. People under 18 are guaranteed 70 per cent of the minimum wage, or €7.14 per hour, though employers can choose to pay more. “A lot of my friends who are entering the workforce for the first time during the summer are very hesitant to go into certain jobs based on the fact that the sub-minimum wage rates are going to not really contribute much to saving for college fees, or towards rent.”

He believes the legislation needs to be looked at again, because “it breeds a culture of precarious work”. This is particularly true in rural areas where there might not be a lot of choice in employers. He recoils from the narrative that “young people are just inherently bad and lazy, and that they won’t do anything to contribute to the economy or society . . . Pay and conditions, once they are copper fastened [WILL SEE]a lot more of an uptake of jobs for young people.”

Curtin doesn’t buy into the notion of teenagers as unwilling to work either. “The level of interest I have seen clearly indicates to me, there’s a very high proportion of these people who want to work and are keen to get out and experience the world of work.”

The one issue several employers do have with teenagers is their attachment to their mobile phones. Curtin, Fitzgerald and Crean have resolved this with no phones at work policies. The policy can be harder to police at the strawberry stands, but Crean reckons he doesn’t need to. “People want to come up and want to have a bit of craic. If [the salesperson] sitting there with their heads bent over their mobile phone and being very unsociable, the customers will let me know. They won’t get the sales.”