The Death of the Great American Summer Job

Last year I spoke at a conference in Boston and was asked a question by a member of the audience. Business owner (in very business-like way): I’m having a hard time finding new college graduates with the soft skills I need for entry-level positions. It’s like they’ve never had a job before.
Ryan: Really, what is your business?
Business owner: I run summer travel enrichment programs for high school and college students.
Ryan: So… to burnish their college applications instead of getting a summer job?

While this employer is getting exactly what she deserves, most deserve candidates with a modicum of soft skills. As I wrote last time, traditional summer camps are one way to build soft skills – and probably more effective than enrichment programs artificially engineered to impress college admissions offices (believe me, they don’t). A better way – particularly for older teens – is to get a summer job.

I worked every summer from the age of 14, first in a restaurant, then serving drinks poolside at a hotel, and learned how to maximize tips from great customers while minimizing fallout from unruly ones. As I recall, the only summer job I where I didn’t gain a ton of valuable soft skills was re-verifying subscriptions for a controlled-circulation trade publication (so my employer could tell advertisers the rag was being delivered to the right people, even if no one was reading it). Apparently, it was supposed to happen every six months and that summer I re-verified something like 10,000 subscribers. The 10,000 phone calls went something like this: Ryan: Hello, I’m calling from [name of cursed controlled-circulation publication] and we’re re-verifying our circulation. Is this John David Stutts?
John David Stutts: Yes.
Ryan: And are you still at 123 Oak Drive?
John David Stutts: Who is this?

On second thought, at the risk of my sanity, I guess I learned a little something about persistence in the face of a Sisyphean and ultimately meaningless project – still an essential skill for too many jobs.


Pew Research has done a good job keeping track of what’s happened to the Great American Summer Job. According to Pew, the share of teens working during the summer has tumbled since 2000. Whereas between 50-60% of teens used to work over the summer, teen employment fell sharply during the 2001 recession and even more during the Great Recession. By 2010-11, only about 30% of teens had summer jobs. While it has rebounded some, teens have lost summer jobs across all sectors. Retailers were once a huge employer of teens; more than 2 million teens worked in retail in the summer of 2000. Last summer, in ostensibly a full-employment economy, the number was 1.2 million. Same with construction and manufacturing: 1.07 million to 509,000. Healthcare and recreation summer jobs for teens have been relatively flat. The only sector to see an increase in teen employment in the last generation is food service and accommodations (fast food, restaurants, and hotels). But the increase is a scant 10% compared to the 38% increase in employment in the sector from 2000 to 2018. Do the math and that’s more than half a million missing summer jobs flipping burgers and serving ice cream.

While Pew provides a litany of explanations for the disappearance of the Great American Summer Job (yes, including students enrolling in summer travel enrichment programs to burnish college applications), it mainly boils down to the fact that these missing jobs are now occupied by adults. These are adults who ought to have a broader and deeper set of skills than teens, but who are unable to find a pathway to a better job.

The best recent portrait of the adult fast food worker doing a job that, a generation ago, would have gone to a teenager is last month’s Vox piece by Emily Guendelsberger: “I was a fast-food worker. Let me tell you about burnout.” She writes about the “chronic mild stress” of frontline service work from tasks that are expected to be completed (and are measured) in seconds, customers who scream and “splatter you with honey mustard, which is a thing that actually happened in my third week [at McDonald’s]” (“there’s a cost associated with continually swallowing your pride and apologizing to unreasonable jerks”), and algorithmic scheduling, leading to massive uncertainty and phenomena like the “clopen” – “back-to-back shifts closing late and opening early the next morning with only a few hours to sleep in between” and unpaid “quasi shifts where workers are expected to be on call in case it’s busier than predicted or sent home early if it’s slower.” As mustard-splattered Emily says:

“The factors a scientist would remove from a rat’s life to make it depressed – predictability and control – are the exact things that have been removed from workers’ lives in the name of corporate flexibility and increased productivity. There’s little more relief for many low-wage workers than for those lab rats desperately trying to keep their heads above water.”

Meanwhile, the average age of fast food works is now approaching 30. Away from their unpredictable shift work, more than a quarter of fast food workers now try to support and raise children on a minimum or near-minimum wage while navigating relationship, financial, and health issues (and simultaneously struggling with the knowledge that they could have gotten these jobs when they were teens).

These are the workers we must focus on when we talk about America’s skills gap. It’s essential that we do so – not only for their future, but specifically for the next generation as well. Because while adults in these jobs find themselves blocked from participation in the dynamic economy, they in turn are blocking teens from getting the summer jobs – the work experience and soft skills – that prior generations accessed as the first rung of a career ladder. Without these summer jobs, teens are growing into underemployed 20-somethings. It’s America’s skills gap begetting a greater skills gap, and the skills gap becoming a vicious circle.


Exiting the skills gap vicious circle will require relentless focus on creating new faster + cheaper pathways at scale for the adult workers blocking the way. While Arizona State has worked miracles through its partnership with Starbucks, so far only 3,000 employees have graduated and gotten out of the way – a drop in the bucket compared to the millions of adults who need to move because they’re crowding out teens. Even if employers are paying, the plight of most frontline service workers leaves little room for error in attempting to complete a multi-year credential: Life gets in the way. So while a college degree should always be an option, 21st century pathways to employment must be faster and friction-free in order to clear the way and stop crowding out the next generation.

As these new models grow, one positive side effect will be the rebirth of the Great American Summer Job. All teens would benefit from getting summer jobs where they’re splattered with honey mustard. And when they get these jobs, summer travel enrichment programs will need fewer entry-level employees because fewer families will enroll. I only hope no teen ever has to re-verify subscriptions for a controlled-circulation trade publication; summer jobs should be about gaining work experience and building soft skills, not precipitating an existential crisis.