OREM — Teenagers searching for employment this summer are facing limited job prospects due to widespread shutdowns in the restaurant and hospitality industries — positions that large numbers of youth tend to fill seasonally.

Even in Utah where about 50% of teens participate in the labor force compared to the national average of 35%, job opportunities have shrunk this summer — a time where they’d typically enter the job industry in force, said Mark Knold, Utah Department of Workforce Services chief economist.

“The leading area where (COVID-19) is hitting the economy the hardest is in the leisure and hospitality sector,” Knold said. “Where you’ve got entertainment, theaters, amusement parks, recreational activities. Those are the kinds of places where the kids would be looking for jobs in the summer.”

The pandemic’s onset of social distancing and limiting of services has also impacted the restaurant and fast food industry, another big youth employer, reducing employment “at least a quarter to a half of what it normally is,” he said.

“It’s not a good environment for them to say the least.”

Becky Ernstrom, 18, from Orem, is well versed at working hard in positions she’s not necessarily passionate about to earn money.

She said she’s never had difficulty finding a job prior to this summer. But throughout the last few months, she’s encountered a number of frustrations during her employment search. These difficulties have been compounded by the fact she was furloughed from her job at the BYU Store in March.

Ernstrom said she’d planned to work two jobs this summer to save money for her mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She started applying for work around the time everything started shutting down.

Many job applications mentioned not knowing when business would reopen and the subsequent interviews she received haven’t yielded offers — a sharp contrast to her past experiences job hunting as previously, she’d never had an interview without being offered the job.

“That’s a little odd just because I’ve been very privileged to always have that,” she said. “I get the feeling that’s changing this summer.”

Ernstrom acknowledged the situation may force her to turn to jobs she’d hoped to be able to move on from like food service.

“This summer I might have to stick with that for a little longer, which is disappointing because I’ve worked hard to build up my resume and to have skills that would be useful to other kinds of employers,” she said.

Adam Wills, owner of the Orem MidiCi Pizza, said 90% of his summer staff is traditionally under 20 years old. The pandemic has reduced its 35 employees to 15.

Wills said he anticipates going back to 20 to 25 employees in the coming weeks as service starts to pick back up again. That being said, they’ll still need fewer employees and likely won’t return to normal for some time.

It also makes training and hiring new teens difficult.

“Where normally we would have time to train them alongside experienced people, we will have to do it a little bit differently this year,” Wills said. “They are going to have to come in and hit the ground running while we try to ramp up sales that are increasing as well.”

Though teens are facing unprecedented challenges this summer finding jobs, most youth do have a shelter to fall back on if they can’t find work, Knold said.

“If there’s any age group that the economy can afford to not employ or for it to be underemployed, this is the age group,” Knold said. “We can absorb the youth not working better than any other age group out there.”

Lifeguard Dexter Gundersen watches swimmers at the Lindon Aquatics Center in Lindon on Tuesday, June 9, 2020. Gundersen was able to find a summer job despite the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Some employers like the Lindon Aquatics Center and Provo Beach Resort haven’t seen a decrease in their staff hired this summer.

Dexter Gundersen, a 15-year-old lifeguard at the Lindon Aquatics Center and an employee at Cook’s Farm and Greenhouse, said he was lucky to find work, crediting it to the fact that he applied early and had connections to employers.

“I think most of the people that got jobs are the ones that started early,” he said.

Lindon Aquatics Center manager Hanna Reynolds said the pool received far more applicants than supervisors expected this year. The same number of people were hired for the summer, even though pool occupancy has been reduced 50% as a number of teens were hired to form a sanitation crew.

Christian Brinton, Provo Beach Resort general manager, recently completed his summer hiring process also staffing up to the normal point for this time of year.

He said COVID-19 hasn’t really impacted their hiring plans, though business has definitely stilled, complicating the staffing for each shift as it tends to be somewhat unpredictable. Training the new hires is also different as teens need to be well-versed in procedures like social distancing and cleaning surfaces.

Utah’s unemployment claims spiked to historic levels throughout the past couple of months as the coronavirus pandemic rolled across the nation, forcing employers to lay off and furlough employees in droves. The number of people filing claims remains at historically high levels.

In addition to the overall lack of jobs, teenagers are facing a number of barriers in their hunt to find employment such as lack of experience, disconnect from school and heath restrictions, said Lindsay Cropper, youth program manager for the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

“Some of our youth that have additional barriers are struggling with other resources and how to take care of everything else in their lives right now. It’s just a challenge,” Cropper said.

Those who face additional barriers like foster care, homelessness, criminal history, single parenthood, disability and parental issues can access the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act through the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

Through the federally funded program, counselors meet one on one with youth who are facing additional barriers, providing a number of services such as career planning, connecting them to leadership opportunities and providing funding for education.

Lifeguard Dexter Gundersen watches swimmers at the Lindon Aquatics Center in Lindon on Tuesday, June 9, 2020. Gundersen was able to find a summer job despite the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“While everyone was kind of isolating and quarantining, we didn’t see a lot of incoming applications but I think now that everything is starting to reopen and people are starting to look for work again, we are expecting the numbers and need to increase,” Cropper said.

In addition to the program, the Department of Workforce Services has a number of services teens can access on the website including mock interviews, job boards, online workshops and a tool that will help them put together a resume.