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National Restaurant Association - Inside the restaurant workforce: Return of the teens

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Inside the restaurant workforce: Return of the teens

After declining sharply in recent years, the recent uptick in teen labor force participation could help ease some of the industry’s staffing challenges, according to the NRA’s Chief Economist Bruce Grindy.  His Economist’s Notebook commentary and analysis appears regularly on Restaurant.org and Restaurant TrendMapper.

While the tightening labor market is playing a significant role in the labor challenges currently being felt across many sectors in the economy, the restaurant industry has also been impacted by some longer-term structural changes in the nation’s labor force.  Most notably among these developments was the sharp and steady decline in the teenage labor pool.

At its peak in the late 1970s, roughly 58 percent of 16-to-19-year-olds were in the labor force, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  This participation rate remained above 50 percent until 2001, when it started trending downward.  The trend accelerated during the Great Recession, with the teen labor force participation rate falling below 35 percent by 2010.

The significant drop in teenagers in the labor force directly impacted the restaurant industry’s workforce.  In 2007, 16-to-19-year-olds represented roughly 21 percent of the restaurant workforce.  By 2010, teenagers only comprised about 16 percent of all restaurant employees.

More recently, the teenage exodus from the labor force started to reverse course.  In 2016, the teenage labor force participation rose to 35.2 percent – the highest level since 2009.  At the same time, teen representation at restaurants also trended higher.  Teenagers made up 17.4 percent of the restaurant workforce in 2016 – the highest proportion since 2009.

Overall, the restaurant industry is the economy’s largest employer of teenagers, providing jobs for 1.6 million individuals between the ages of 16 and 19.  Put another way, one-third of all working teenagers in the U.S. are employed in a restaurant. 

Regardless of whether the recent uptick in teen labor force participation is the start of a longer-term trend or just a temporary blip, restaurants will always be the primary training ground for these young workers.  But if teens do return to the labor force in larger numbers, it could certainly help ease some of the industry’s staffing challenges. 

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