DULUTH - For high school students, having a job is less a rite of passage than a novelty these days.

In Minnesota and across the country, fewer teenagers are working despite all sorts of opportunities to pick up that first paycheck. And without early job experiences, the workforce of tomorrow may not be equipped with workplace basics.

"That's not necessarily technical skills so much as soft skills - things like the ability to resolve conflicts at work, knowing how to conduct yourself as a professional in the workplace," said Joe Mahon, regional economist with the Minneapolis Federal Reserve. "There's pretty persuasive evidence that part-time employment among high school students has positive effects on later career outcomes."

Since the turn of the century, Minnesota teenagers have dropped out of the workforce by the thousands. Statewide, the teenage population has fallen slightly since 2000, and in St. Louis County the numbers have dropped more significantly. Still, the rate of teenagers working or looking for work has fallen even as the number of jobs has grown.

"There's no doubt many of the jobs in the economy are those lower-skill, entry-level jobs which would seem perfect for a young person to start their career," said Erik White, regional labor analyst with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Studies show young workers feel increasingly unprepared to enter the workforce after high school or college, and employers tend to agree. Yet researchers haven't been able to pinpoint exactly why fewer teens are working or even looking for work, though an increased focus on school and competition from displaced older workers may play a role.

With fewer classmates working, White speculated there's less peer pressure to get a job, too.

"There's hope that now with this tight labor market and jobs available, having jobs can be cool again," he said.

Summer jobs

It's certainly still cool to land a gig at Gordy's Hi-Hat, where the classic summer job is alive and well.

"We probably saw 125 applications from high school kids," said Sever Lundquist, manager of the Cloquet landmark.

For decades the family-owned burger joint has been a destination for young workers looking to get some spare change in their pockets and maybe learn a thing or two in the process.

"Not only do they learn people skills here, but simple responsibility - when to be at work, chores to do, day-to-day stuff," Lundquist said. "They put in the hours, we expect a lot from them and rarely are we disappointed."

And while economists say this is great for "improving human capital" and sharpening the future labor force, these working teens are not too worried about the macroeconomic implications of their first jobs.

"I'm just growing my bank account, saving for college," said 17-year-old Cody Warbalow, now in his fourth year at Gordy's. "I spend it on gas and that's about it."

While Cody works to keep his Dodge Charger running, Josh Sanders is saving up for his own ride.

"At first my parents were like, 'You have the rest of your life to work, you can wait a little longer,' but there's all this time where I'm bored at home, and I could be making money," the 15-year-old said during a break from keeping the dining area clean. "I like to stay busy here; that's one reason I came to Gordy's."

Both will be picking up more hours now that school is out. And as seasonal jobs open up plenty of classmates will be joining them - just not as many as there used to be.

In the summer of 2000, about 40 percent of Minnesota teenagers were working, according to Census figures. By the summer of 2016, the rate had fallen to 28 percent.

Nationally, teen worker rates have fallen from 45 to 20 percent since 2000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

One theory holds that higher minimum wages have "priced some teenagers out of the labor market," since employers now may want to spend that money on more experienced applicants, researchers David Neumark and Cortnie Shupe wrote in a Mercatus Center paper earlier this year. They also speculated that a renewed focus on getting ahead via college could have played a role.

With low-wage jobs abundant and unemployment rates at record lows in the region, it might be a more obvious reason: Some students simply don't want or need to work.

Not every teenager has the work ethic of Tori Leppi, who started slinging coffee and ice cream at Gordy's Warming House last year. The 17-year-old said the job has honed the interpersonal skills she'll need to go on to be an X-ray technician. And though lots of her friends have found work without trouble, Tori notices plenty staying on the sidelines.

"I think the reason people aren't working is they don't want to - they want to have free time," she said. "Which I get, but I feel like you have to work to have free time."


All play and no work makes young people less employable down the line, experts say.

The need for soft skills like critical thinking, communication, time management and teamwork is on the rise - or rather the need has always been there, and young workers increasingly lack these skills.

Managers say just half of recent college graduates are ready to jump into a career, according to a 2016 survey from PayScale. It's the soft skills like problem-solving and attention to detail that are lacking the most, the advising firm says, while the biggest technical skills lacking are writing proficiency and public speaking.

In his book "Bridging the Soft Skills Gap," Bruce Tulgan writes that "people are hired because of their hard skills, but people are fired because of their soft skills."

Which all means that learning how to get along with co-workers and showing up on time could have major implications at the start of someone's career.

Although it might be better to learn those lessons before there are bills to pay, there is a worry students might overextend themselves and see their grades slip if they work during the school year. Yet the benefits of having a job while in high school appear to outweigh perceived drawbacks like spending less time on homework.

"Part-time employment during the school year doesn't seem to have a detrimental impact," said Mahon at the Minneapolis Fed. "Some of the studies that have been done show that teenagers who work part time don't spend any less time doing homework."

Other research shows that early work experience leads to higher wages and a higher likelihood of being employed at all in adulthood, Mahon said.

Jamie Savre, a guidance counselor at Duluth East, said students are encouraged to find jobs if they want one, and the school often hears directly from local employers looking for a little help. While there are parents who want their kids to make school their only job, Savre said most are supportive.

"Our caution is just that students aren't overwhelmed," she said. But on the flip side, she added: "If a student doesn't have enough to do, they're going to waste time - on video games or texting each other or doing things that are a waste of time."

Texting, it turns out, is not one of the soft skills employers are looking for.