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Employment Is Growing for Tennessee Teens but Jobs Are Still Less Common

Teen employment continues its recovery from the Great Recession and last summer reached levels that have not been seen in more than 20 years.

A growing number of Tennessee teens have been finding work over the last ten years. Employment levels for workers aged 14 to 18 fell through the 2000’s and then bottomed out in 2011 at the tail end of the Great Recession.

It was a stunning contraction which saw the number of employed teens in 2010 shrink to roughly 50,000 workers, which was less than half its level ten years earlier.

Since then, employment has been climbing and in the third quarter of 2022 reached almost 103,000 workers ages 14 to 18 – the highest level recorded since the summer of 2000 in which over 109,000 teens were employed.

Line chart showing number of 14- to 18- year workers in Tennessee

Figure 1:  The seasonal high-point for employment among 14 to 18 year old workers comes at the beginning of the third quarter (July) when employers make hires to cover demand surges over the summer months.

This came as good news to Tennessee employers who have been navigating an extremely tight labor market since the second quarter of 2020 when a portion of the state’s workforce was sidelined by health concerns and childcare issues related to COVID-19. Additional supply-side pressure came in the second half of 2021 as the number of people quitting their job each month rose to record levels.

Throughout 2022, the state averaged 256,000 job openings per month and two open positions for every unemployed worker. Similar labor market conditions were seen across the country.

The hunt for workers eventually drew additional teens into the labor force as employers responded with higher wages. Average monthly earnings for 14- to 18-year-old teens saw their largest one-year increase from 2019 to 2020; an inflation-adjusted $81 jump from $712 to $793.

Through the first three quarters in 2022, the latest available data, monthly earnings for a teen worker in Tennessee averaged $805. Accounting for recent inflationary pressures, this was off slightly from the $818 per month level recorded in 2021. Monthly earnings in 2021 were the highest seen since 2000 when adjusted for inflation.

Line chart showing inflation adjusted average earnings of Tennessee workers

Figure 2:  Adjusted for inflation, the average monthly earning of teen workers in Tennessee trended downward 2000 and 2019. Beginning in 2020 earnings grew as wages increased in response to labor supply constraints.

Those recent increases ended a two-decade slide for teen earnings which were 13.5 percent lower in 2019 than they were in 2000. That was in sharp contrast to the workforce as a whole, whose earnings grew 12.6 percent over the same time period. But teens also worked more. The number of hours worked by 14- to 18-year-olds rose from 16 in 2000 to 18 in 2022. That suggests that differences among the two groups are at least partly attributable to hourly wage minimums, that have been fixed since 2009.

Where does that leave Tennessee’s teen labor market? Even with improved earnings gains and growing employer demand, the percentage of this age group working in 2021 was 21.2 percent, well under the 2000 level when 28 percent of 14- to 18-year-olds were employed. That number should rise again in 2022 when updated population estimates are published, providing more evidence that teens are returning to the state’s workforce.

Percentage Employment for Teens 14 to 18 Years of Age in Tennessee

Source: Quarterly Workforce Indicators, U.S. Census Bureau; Decennial Census (2000, 2010), U.S. Census Bureau; Vintage 2021 Population Estimates, U.S. Census Bureau.
Note: Vintage 2021 population estimates are the latest available data with a late June 2023 date expected for the Vintage 2022 release.

And there’s some early evidence that in 2023, the situation could get even better. Preliminarily, the number of workers age 14 to 18 across the country grew 1.6 percent in April compared to one year ago. More impressively, this year’s April unemployment rate for 16- to 19-year-old teens reached its lowest-level since 1956.

Service Sector Positions Dominate Teen Employment

Many teens work in entry-level positions where specialization and extensive training aren’t required. For the summer of 2022, that meant that a large majority of 14- to 18-year-old workers were concentrated in just two industries: food service and retail trades.

Overall, 48 percent of employed teens in the state work in the accommodation and food service sector. Most of these were restaurant-related jobs including work in fast-food establishments, food preparation and as wait staff in full-service dining settings. In total, nearly 50,000 Tennessee teens work in this sector, which also includes a handful employed by lodging-related businesses.

An additional 21 percent of teen workers were employed by Tennessee retailers last summer. That totaled about 22,000 employees in the third quarter of last year.

Table 1:  Top 10 Teen Employment Sectors – Number of 14- to 18-year-old workers in Tennessee at the beginning of the third quarter, 2022.
Rank Sector Total Share of Total
1 Accommodation and Food Services 49,581 48.2%
2 Retail Trade 21,987 21.4%
3 Arts, Entertainment, and Recreation 6,212 6.0%
4 Administrative and Support 3,080 3.0%
5 Other Services 2,970 2.9%
6 Health Care and Social Assistance 2,639 2.6%
7 Educational Services 2,528 2.5%
8 Manufacturing 2,401 2.3%
9 Construction 2,277 2.2%
10 Public Administration            2,199 2.1%

Most of the balance of the age group were employed in other types of jobs within service-related industries, but about 5-percent of teen workers found employment in goods-producing sectors in 2022. They worked mainly in construction- and manufacturing-related jobs.

What about Those Summer Jobs?

A summer job as a lifeguard, camp counselor or working at a local restaurant is the entry point to the workforce for many teens. Some of those opportunities come in response to seasonal hiring by Tennessee employers.

Since 2000, an average of 12,000 14- to 18-year-olds were added to employer payrolls between the beginning of the second and third quarters. The number of summer hires in the state was also impacted by the Great Recession, reaching a low of 5,070 in 2009. But by 2015, they had returned to average levels. The summer of 2021 saw 17,700 hires, the most since 1998.

Column chart showing number of Summer Jobs for teen workers in Tennessee

Figure 3:  Quarter 2 typically represents the seasonal low point for teen employment and is often followed by a third quarter surge in seasonal employment.

Three service-based sectors added the most seasonal employees in 2022 and was topped by the already large restaurant sector which added over 3,900 new teen employees leading into the summer months.

That was followed by the arts and entertainment sector, which more than doubled the number of 14- to 18-year-old workers between the second and third quarters of last year. Within this sector, some young workers are also associated with food service occupations, with others acting as various kinds of recreation attendants.

On a percentage basis, the largest increase came from the public sector last summer. It tripled the number of teen workers in 2022 and added nearly 1,500 new employees. Young workers find employment in this sector working as recreational assistants, lifeguards, park maintenance and summer program counselors.

Table 2:  Summer Jobs in 2022 – Top ten sectors for change in quarter 2 to quarter 3 employment for 14- to 18-year-old workers in Tennessee.
Sector 2022 Q2 2022 Q3 Change Percent Change
Accommodation and Food Services 45,669 49,581 3,912 8.6%
Arts, Entertainment, and Recreation 3,021 6,212 3,191 105.6%
Public Administration 737 2,199 1,462 198.4%
Construction 1,333 2,277 944 70.8%
Administrative and Support 2,173 3,080 907 41.7%
Other Services 2,104 2,970 866 41.2%
Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services 915 1,561 646 70.6%
Educational Services 1,886 2,528 642 34.0%
Manufacturing 1,843 2,401 558 30.3%
Health Care and Social Assistance 2,147 2,639 492 22.9%

The retail trade sector is missing from the 2022 list of industries making seasonal hires.  Although stores employed over 21 percent of Tennessee teens, it did not experience the seasonal employment bump that this age group has seen in prior years. It netted an increase of only 28 teen workers between the second and third quarters in 2022.

Measuring Summer Employment Among Youth in Tennessee

The Census Bureau’s Quarterly Workforce Indicator data provides the demographic characteristics of job holders. That means that it can be used to measure the change in the number of workers age 14 to 18 by employment sector, geography and over time. Although seasonal “summer jobs” held by teen workers cannot be directly measured using available public data, the change in the number of people employed at the start of the second quarter (April 1) and third quarter (July 1) are used as a proxy. Data from 2022 shows how the estimate calculated.

Keep Reading

Employment and Unemployment Among Youth — Summer 2022 (Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Do Young Workers Still Have Summer Jobs? – U.S. Census Bureau (July 2022)