Facing a recovering economy and a shortage of workers, businesses are hiring teens this summer to keep up with demand | Local Business


CHICAGO — Logan Riedel knew he needed to make some money this summer. The 22-year-old sent out a few job applications but wasn’t getting a quick response.

That changed when Gordon’s Ace Hardware in Oriole Park called him back an hour after he applied.

“I thought that was really neat,” Riedel, a recent graduate of Illinois State University, said. “They gave me the best opportunity in terms of getting in and getting working.” As a sales associate, his responsibilities include greeting customers, running the register and mixing paint.

Across Illinois and much of the country, businesses are looking to ramp up hiring as the economy recovers. The unemployment rate in Illinois has steadily declined since the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it still stood at 7.1% in April, well above the 3.7% recorded in March 2020, just before the economy began shutting down.

Even as vaccinations have increased and restrictions have eased, the labor market remains tight because some workers haven’t come back. As a result, businesses are turning to teenagers to help fill in the gaps as they prepare for an expected boom in business this summer.

Jeremy Melnick, owner of seven Ace Hardware Stores including the one in Oriole Park, said his businesses saw high demand over the last year as people stayed home and invested in home improvement projects, which has continued this year. He’s looking to hire 15 more people to work as sales associates.

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Melnick’s stores pay employees, including Riedel, $14.25 an hour, but that wage will increase to at least $15 when Chicago raises its minimum wage on July 1. Another perk Melnick offers is a flexible work schedule.

About 20% of Melnick’s staff are college students, with a majority being recent hires. Orientation for new hires is usually done once a month, but now Melnick said it’s happening as often as once a week.

“We are looking to hire whoever is willing to work. Like everybody else, we’re trying to speed up the process,” Melnick said.

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in sharp job losses for teenagers across the country, with the portion of the population ages 16 to 19 with jobs falling to 20.9% in April 2020, the lowest level on record. This has rebounded in recent months, reaching 33.2% in May — the highest level since the 2008 financial crisis.

While the economy continues to recover, there were still 9.3 million people out of the U.S. labor force in May. Factors such as lingering virus fears, unemployment benefits and a lack of child care continue to weigh on the labor market and are keeping some adults from seeking work, according to Oren Klachkin, lead U.S. economist at Oxford Economics. While teenagers have benefited in recent months, he doesn’t expect this to be a long-term trend.

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“It’s probably just a short-term fallout from the ongoing shock that we’re still in,” Klachkin said.

RJW Logistics Group, a logistics, trucking and warehouse company, recently announced an expansion of its operations with a seventh warehouse in Lockport. It’s looking to hire 75 people by Aug. 1 for the facility with a goal of staffing up to 250 by the end of the year. The company recently hired seven college students and is planning to hire four more, CEO Kevin Williamson said. RJW Logistics declined to say how much it is paying the new hires but touted other benefits like company barbecues.

Chicago Bears coach Matt Nagy has said Justin Fields can’t win the starting quarterback spot at training camp and the former Ohio State passer has some thoughts of his own on how this can work.

Not all businesses have had the same hiring luck, even when it comes to teen workers. Like other establishments in the service industry, Aztec Dave’s Food Truck has been short-staffed for some time. Although business is as busy as ever, owner Ramon Torres has only been able to add two people in the past month despite actively looking for workers for over five months.

While he typically employs a high school student during the summer months, he hasn’t been able to find one yet. He’s created his own internship program that pays an hourly rate of $14 plus tips in an effort to attract applicants. He’s also working with Iskali, a nonprofit organization that serves Latino youth, to help with outreach.

“We’re doing everything we can possibly can to find qualified, honest, hardworking service industry people,” Torres said.

Torres is looking for a minimum of 10 people, from bartenders to managers, as he is about to open Aztec Dave’s Cantina in Humboldt Park, his first brick-and-mortar establishment. With unemployment benefits set to expire in the next few months, he feels it’s only a matter of time before more applications arrive.

To attract the best candidates, Torres has increased pay and benefits. He’s now offering health benefits to full-time employees, while hourly workers can receive between $15-$17 an hour plus tips.

Torres said his decision to pay more than what most others in his industry offer reflects a growing push in the service industry to do more to retain qualified workers, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. He also said taking care of his team financially is the right thing to do.

“We know that times are changing. We know that to have a sustainable, positive workforce, you have to have the right staff and [you] have to take care of the staff,” Torres said.


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