My first job interview took place on a barstool in Eveleth. I was 16, in fresh possession of a driver’s license and itching to make some money. The classified ad read “Pizza Delivery Driver.” I called the number and within hours was sitting next to the owner at his bar watching him taste-test the beer order.
“Do you have a driver's license and insurance?” he asked.
Oh yes, I replied. I reached for my wallet to show him.
“No, that’s fine,” he said, waiving off my identification cards.
He moved on to the next question. “Who is your family?”
Our last name is the color of mud, mice and poop, and just as common, so I explained my father and grandfather’s small local businesses. Like most multi-generation Iron Range families, it’s a coin flip as to how this might turn out.
It turned out well, or at least it got me the job. The next question was when could I start, and the answer was the next day.
With that, I had my first job. And while my three-month pizza delivery career may have been relatively short, it nonetheless consolidated several years of life experience into one long, hot summer. By August I could handle drunks, dark alleys, sharp turns and I knew exactly how fast the family minivan could really go. (And where to expect cops).
This is what summer jobs promise; experience and quick cash for teens. Employers must contend with the likes of my 16-year-old self, but they also get a ready temporary workforce for the busy season. For small towns, summer workers sometimes go on to become full time workers years later, so it’s also a critical networking opportunity.
The last decade became difficult for the teenage workforce. The recession that began in 2008 kicked off a long stretch of time when an underemployed workforce consumed some of the jobs that once went to teens. By the early 2010s that was easing up, reveling a new problem: fewer teens looking for work.
I learned about teen employment trends from a Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development report released in March 2019 by analyst Oriane Casale. Casale explains that the biggest change in recent years is a substantial drop in youth unemployment. The youth unemployment rate is just 5.4 percent, down from more than 18 percent in 2012. Youth labor force participation is also higher this year, though still much lower than it was in 2001.
“Rising labor force participation in Minnesota in this age group is an excellent sign for employers who want to hire teens,” writes Orsale. “With so many things competing for teens’ time — school, extracurricular activities, family responsibilities, and friends — teens are likely to forgo job search in a slack labor market. If their friends are having a difficult time finding jobs, they might not even bother to look. But when their peers are finding jobs, or they see help wanted signs in their neighborhood and at locations they frequent, teens are much more likely to apply for jobs.”
The fact is, if you talk to local employers, they need reliable people badly — teenage or otherwise. Even though the Iron Range tells itself a story of constant decline, there is work available. And for teens, the experience helps.
“Summer jobs and low intensity jobs held during the school year by older teens can keep them focused and help them learn important soft skills like time management, showing up to work on time, and appropriate behavior with coworkers and customers,” writes Orsale. “Younger students, however, and those working more hours have a harder time balancing school and work.”
The DEED report advises parents to encourage teens to limit their hours during the school year.
Ultimately, my late 1990s pizza delivery career ended because the school year was starting. I couldn’t figure out how to keep up with school while slinging pizzas at night. Strangely enough, by the following winter I was a weekend overnight disc jockey at a local radio station. Terrible hours, but I could do homework while listening to Earth, Wind and Fire at three in the morning.
From this, a local media career arose from the kitchen of a pizza bar. Everything works out in the end.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and community college instructor from Northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio (KAXE.org).