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Some Wisconsin employers say finding seasonal help was easier this year than last 2 summers

State's teen labor force participation down since 2000, but still well above national rate

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Teens participate in the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce's "Smart Girls Rock!" event
Teens participate in the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce’s “Smart Girls Rock!” event, designed to help young girls interested in STEM set career goals and start taking steps to pursue that path. Photo Courtesy of the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce

It’s summer jobs season in Wisconsin, a time when high school and college students get their first taste of joining the workforce. After finding seasonal help proved difficult the past two summers, some employers say they had an easier time this year.

That comes as the state’s labor force participation rate — a measure of people working or looking for work — among teens aged 16 to 19 declined from 66.5 percent in 2000 to 56.5 percent in 2022, according to research from the University of Wisconsin-Extension. That still exceeded the national rate in 2022 of 36.8 percent among teens.

In April, the state Department of Workforce Development, or DWD, launched the month-long “Welcome to the Workforce” outreach initiative to educate students, parents and employers on their rights and responsibilities.

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“Teens are an important part of Wisconsin’s labor force and we want their first experience in the workplace to be safe and positive,” DWD Secretary-designee Amy Pechacek said in a statement. “As many of them prepare to enter the workforce for the summer months or upon graduation, we want them to know that DWD is here for them as well as the employers who hire them.”

While young people may be crucial to the state’s workforce, a new survey of 170 businesses by business lobbying giant Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, or WMC, found that 73 percent of employers say students graduating from the public K-12 system are unprepared for work.

“That’s created huge problems for our employers,” said Rachel Ver Velde, WMC’s senior director of workforce, education and employment policy. “They’re facing a labor shortage, but then they’re also facing this crisis of kids being unprepared.”

But not all economic development organizations have heard those sentiments. For example, Eric Broten, economic development director for the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber’s members haven’t expressed concerns about the ability of today’s youngest workers.

“I’ve never had someone come out and tell me, ‘Yeah, those kids coming out of high school just aren’t ready for X, Y and Z.’ That’s not something that I’ve been told before,” he said.

Aimee Herrick is a former high school English teacher and the director of events and emerging talent for the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce. She said the chamber helps organize a variety of events throughout the year to help K-12 and college students learn about local employment opportunities. That includes hosting small career fairs on campuses around the Fox Cities. Herrick said those career fairs were helpful this year for students looking for summer jobs and businesses looking for seasonal help.

Each year, the Experimental Aircraft Association, or EAA, hosts its massive AirVenture air show and fly-in convention in Oshkosh, drawing half a million people to the Fox Valley. The association typically hires between 50 and 100 people for summer jobs, ranging from interns to grounds help, according to EAA communications director Dick Knapinski. For the week of AirVenture, EAA adds another 600 jobs in everything from retail to camper registration.

Knapinski said AirVenture often helps local high school students get their first work experience. He said filling seasonal positions was a challenge in 2021 and 2022, but those problems eased in 2023.

“There seemed to be more people interested in finding that temporary-type work (and) maybe picking up a few extra bucks for a week’s work during AirVenture,” he said. “We also are blessed to have a lot of people who do return, who come back each year and help augment that workforce.”

While AirVenture sees a major influx in tourism to the Fox Valley for one week, Door County spends most of the summer with an influx of tourists, requiring local businesses to hire seasonal workers.

During the summer, Sonny’s Italian Kitchen & Pizzeria in Sturgeon Bay goes from having around 50 employees to between 100 and 120 workers — with most of the seasonal employees being high school or college students, according to owner Jason Estes.

“We do probably 60 percent of our business in three months — June, July and August,” he said.

Much like EAA, Sonny’s Italian Kitchen struggled to find seasonal workers in 2021 and 2022, but had better luck this year, Estes said.

“We’ve been very fortunate this summer,” he said, describing this year’s situation as a “180-degree turn from last year.”

Estes also said the quality of work he’d received from his seasonal staff has been top-notch this summer.

“Because we are such a busy restaurant, we get servers that are hungry,” he said. “They come in, they want to work a double (shift), they want to work five or six days a week.”

Whether summer jobs or youth apprenticeship opportunities, WMC’s Ver Velde said it’s vitally important to find ways to give students opportunities to get hands-on experience. The WMC survey shows 99 percent of respondents supported additional funding for apprenticeships, dual enrollment credits and work-based learning opportunities for high school students.

“Without work-based learning, without youth apprenticeships, kids aren’t seeing the jobs that are available to them,” Ver Velde said. “It’s particularly important in keeping kids here in Wisconsin rather than leaving the state by making sure that their eyes are open to the opportunities that are here.”

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