HR Tips for Managing Teen Workers

HR Tips for Managing Teen Workers

Fewer U.S. teens are working, but it’s still important to know how to recruit, train and manage them well.

By Tamara Lytle April 16, 2018
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​Who wants to hire people who can't work late, have never held a job, aren't allowed to use some equipment and totally need you to schedule their shifts around family vacations?

Plenty of employers. Teen workers are indispensable to many companies, especially in retail and tourism—and particularly during the summer and other peak seasons when numerous businesses desperately need extra help.

 "Our staff, in particular our younger staff, make it happen. My income is based on their efforts," says Patrick Pipino, who owns a Ben & Jerry's ice cream franchise in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. About 70 percent of his 50-person team is between the ages of 16 and 18. "When you're around young people all day, it keeps you young. They have lots of energy. They're very idealistic."

​Workers under 18 aren't just fresher-faced versions of regular employees, though. For one thing, they are subject to stricter federal and state work and safety rules. And while teens are often enthusiastic employees, the HR professionals who recruit and manage them also understand that, well, kids will be kids. There are special techniques and considerations to keep in mind—from curbing phone use to managing helicopter parents—to get the best results. After all, these employees will set the tone for the season and could be an asset to your company long after summer is over.

A (Smaller) Infusion of Youth

​Many teens today are too busy with sports, academics and other activities to take summer jobs. In fact, the share of 16- to 19-year-olds who work has been steadily declining for years. From the 1970s through the 1990s, more than half of them were employed or looking for a job, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But by 2024, only about 1 in 4 will actively seek work, the bureau forecasts.

The shortage of available young workers, especially in an already tight labor market, has caused some employers to look abroad for help. Each year, employers hire tens of thousands of foreign students on temporary work visas. Uncertainty about immigration policy could be a wild card for businesses that pursue that strategy.

Still, the summer job marks a rite of passage for many American teenagers. Susan Seubert, vice president of HMSHost in Bethesda, Md., a food and beverage company that serves travelers, is grateful there are young people who still want to work at the highway travel plazas her business manages. The kids are available to work during summer and winter breaks, which matches peak travel seasons when customers flood into the Burger King, Starbucks and other fast-food restaurants the company operates. The employees, who work as cashiers and baristas and in other positions, are a key part of the workforce: Of the roughly 15,000 people HMSHost hires each year, about 1,100 are under 18.

​Sometimes, seasonal workers become full-time staffers, providing a pipeline of already-trained, reliable hires. At Six Flags America's Upper Marlboro, Md., amusement park, about 30 percent of the year-round, full-time workforce started as teens, according to human resources director Brad McClain.

‘When you’re around young people all day, it keeps you young. They have lots of energy. They’re very idealistic.’
Patrick Pipino

It might sound counterintuitive, but these inexperienced workers can provide a measure of workforce stability. When you hire youth for the summer rush, you can avoid bringing on temps who might leave for a full-time job. That's one reason Timberlane Inc. recruits teens, says Brandi Yanulavich, director of people and culture at the Philadelphia-area manufacturer that makes custom exterior shutters. Timberlane has 55 employees and hires about six workers each summer when demand spikes for jobs like sanding and boxing up products.

The company's full-time staff enjoys the infusion of youth. "They're fully invested in training the summer workers, so they're enthusiastic," Yanulavich says. "They value the help and see [the young people] as hard workers."

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: Youth Employment: What do I need to consider when hiring a minor?]

Safety First

Keeping younger workers safe is critical. Make sure to give them the same training that other employees receive. "You can't cut the corner for safety training, even though the length of their employment isn't going to be as long," says Camille Olson, an attorney at Seyfarth Shaw LLP in Chicago.

Indeed, workers under 25 have higher rates of injuries than others. For instance, in 2014, employees ages 16-19 had more than twice as many work-related injuries that sent them to emergency rooms as did people 25 and older, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

"For many, it's their first job and they don't have experience in the workplace," says Diane Bush, program coordinator for the Labor Occupational Health Program at the University of California, Berkeley. "In addition, they don't have life experience. They have a tendency not to speak up if an adult tells them to do something, even if it might feel unsafe to them, or they might not recognize it as being unsafe."

​Where to Connect with Teens

  • ​At local high school counseling offices, and at vocational and technical schools.
  • Through recommendations from current full-time staff and seasonal workers.
  • On Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook (where you might find the parents of those teens looking for ideas for summer jobs for their kids).
  • On job-search websites like SnagAJob.com, SimplyHired
.com, job-mapper.com, indeed.com and ZipRecruiter.com.
  • ​At job fairs, including those at community colleges.

​That's why it's important to stress that everyone can speak up about safety concerns. At the same time, supervisors should model safe practices, like wearing gloves and safety goggles. And buddy systems, where young people are paired with experienced workers who look out for them and help them become better workers, can be instructive, Bush says. Timberlane does that—pairs teens with seasoned staff. While the young people aren't allowed to operate heavy equipment, they must wear safety equipment and are trained just like their full-time co-workers.

HMSHost trains not only teen employees but also their managers so that they understand federal and state rules on youth employment and equipment use. Those under 18 are given different-colored shirts or hats so managers get a quick visual reminder of who needs to have limited hours or stay away from certain equipment. The food and beverage company also uses classroom instruction, computer-assisted training and one-on-one sessions to teach folks about customer service and the specific expectations of the restaurant brands they are working for.

The teen employees demonstrate a strong aptitude for education. "The mindset of a young person is learning," Seubert of HMSHost points out. "They absorb our training very quickly."

Keeping Them Engaged

​After you hire young workers, you'll find that retaining them comes with its own challenges.

For one thing, you need to be able to offer them what they seek—primarily a sense of purpose in their work and an opportunity to learn and grow, according to Kimberly Gilsdorf, associate director of nonprofit consulting firm FSG in Seattle. These insights come from a focus group she held on retention best practices for local 16- to 24-year-olds who were not in school or the workforce.

"Think about how you are framing this job to the people you are hiring as the first step in their career journey," Gilsdorf says. "How can you make it more than a way to get extra cash? When you do that, your job will be so much easier."

​The companies that do this best make sure the benefits of work are relevant to youth, Gilsdorf says. Predictable schedules are a good start. HMSHost uses a time management system with an app that lets people set their times of availability. "When we enter into a relationship with a young person, we have a mindset this is one piece of that person's life and we want to be flexible," Seubert says.

Compensation also counts. Pipino gives his ice cream scoopers bonuses of up to $1,000 if they stick around for the full season. He paid more than New York's minimum wage until the state recently raised it to $12.75 an hour for franchised companies like his. His turnover rate is just 25 percent in an industry where it's usually much higher, and he receives 500 applications each year for 50 positions.

"We are perceived as the cool spot to work," he says. "You're serving ice cream, with music on in the background. It's conducive to a teen environment."

Not everyone has ice cream, cotton candy and roller coasters to offer. But even in less hip environments, such as at manufacturers like Timberlane, you can draw kids in by teaching them how various aspects of the business work, whether it's woodworking, installation or process management. Research indicates that Generation Z—the youngest generation, roughly defined as those born from the mid-1990s on—have a deeply etched entrepreneurial spirit that may lead them to want to understand how companies are run.

Also, never underestimate the value of a good perk. At Six Flags, summer hires can get into the park free with a guest and qualify for college scholarships. HMSHost offers free meals and has a tuition reimbursement program that employees can tap if they become full time.

Being singled out in front of a room full of mostly older co-workers ‘will make a young person’s chest puff out’ and give them confidence on the job.
Susan Seubert


Praise is a particularly effective motivational tool, Seubert says, especially for young people who have been raised with the constant feedback provided by social media. Managers at HMSHost start each shift with a meeting by recognizing employees' good work. Being singled out in front of a room full of mostly older co-workers "will make a young person's chest puff out" and give them confidence on the job, she says. Even when not done publicly, managers are encouraged to recognize contributions in a private, meaningful way.

The company also uses a practice that others have found to work for enterprising Generation Z workers: rotating them to different jobs. A Burger King worker, for instance, might get to learn how to be a Starbucks barista. The Maryland Six Flags similarly moves teens around to keep their interest.

Pipino uses plum assignments as an incentive for top performers. His ice cream shop, in the heart of upstate New York horse-racing country, caters music festivals, parties and other events. His top workers get the catering gigs, which pay more and generally come with better tips and more authority.

Management Issues

​Of course, young people also come with their own special set of management challenges. Pipino, for instance, gets tired of helicopter parents who come along on job interviews and call in sick for their kids. "I always politely tell them, 'You don't work with us. I want to hear from your son or daughter,' " he says.

The legal landscape is also different. Under federal law, you need to keep track of the ages of all workers under 18, and some states require special paperwork such as work permits for them. (Check your state's laws.) Federal rules also bar youth from operating certain equipment in the kitchen, so McClain at Six Flags makes sure teens aren't assigned any cooking jobs to avoid confusion. Other legislation prevents them from operating rides. But his crew of 15- to 17-year-olds take tickets, work registers and handle other jobs.

The amusement park uses tracking software to monitor teens' hours because Maryland prohibits anyone under 18 from working and going to school more than 12 hours combined in a day. The software blocks youngsters from being scheduled for hours that are over the limit and alerts managers when they are close to reaching their maximum.

​Know the Rules

Federal statutes governing wages and safety for young workers aren’t always easy to navigate. (State laws can be even more restrictive, and there are different rules for farm laborers.) If you’re hiring teens this summer, here are some federal Fair Labor Standards Act rules to keep in mind:
Youth under 18:
  • Cannot work in hazardous occupations or use some machinery, including bakery mixers and meat slicers.
  • Cannot drive on the job, although there is an exception for 17-year-olds during daylight hours.
Workers who are 14 and 15:
  • Can work only three hours a day on school days and eight on nonschool days.
  • Can work no more than 18 hours each week when school is in session and 40 hours during vacations.
  • Can work only between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. most of the year, but until 9 p.m. between June 1 and Labor Day.
​Employees under 20:
  • Can be paid the youth minimum wage of $4.25 an hour (though state laws can push minimums higher).
  • Can receive that low rate only for the first 90 calendar days after they are hired. So, if they work 60 days during the summer and then come back during Christmas break after the 90-day period expires, you will need to pay them at least the regular federal minimum wage of $7.25

​As any parent of an adolescent can tell you, it can be difficult to connect with teens and may sometimes seem like you're speaking another language. That's why Six Flags takes advantage of the communications vehicle that these digital natives are most comfortable with: texting. Teens get alerts on their phones to remind them of interviews, orientation and training, McClain says. At Timberlane, job interviews cover what's expected of workers, since many teens have never held a job before.

Even so, sometimes Timberlane's regular workers need to have a talk with their youthful counterparts about such topics as the importance of being on time for work. "They require a bit more oversight than a staff member who's been in the workforce for years," Yanulavich says.

The team at Six Flags finds that a highly structured attendance policy helps curb attendance abuse. The company's leaders have also had to clamp down on cellphone use on the job—for adults as well as teens. This season, lockers will be available to workers to stow their devices, and aquatics and ride attendants will be required to use them. Violators will be terminated.

Pipino has had to fire only two young workers in 10 years. He tries to be flexible with teens—by cutting them slack about using cellphones during slow off-season days, for example. Even after verbal and written reprimands, he has a talk with them: "I say: 'If this doesn't correct itself, I have to let you go, and I don't want to do that.' "

Teen employees are vital to many businesses, even if they work only for a season or two. But the lessons they learn on the job will stay with them for a lifetime. "For 80 percent of them, it's their first job. We are giving vital job training to young people," Pipino says. "I view myself as their first learning experience to set them up for success in their careers." In other words, hiring teens is totally worth it. 

Tamara Lytle is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.

Illustration by Jon Krause for HR Magazine.

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