This story is jointly published by nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune, in collaboration with student media at Salt Lake Community College, to elevate diverse perspectives in local media through emerging journalism.
As the nation’s economy continues to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic, employers in Utah may have more options for filling job vacancies than in other states.
Utah teens ages 16–19 make up 7% of the state’s entire workforce, The Salt Lake Tribune reported in May, well above the national rate of 3.7%. Wisconsin, ranked second, counts teens in that range as only 5.4% of its workforce.
But there is another important data point to pay attention to: The percentage of Utah teens who work. Wisconsin comes in first, with 59.9% of teens there having some kind of job, but Utah isn’t far behind. As of 2023, nearly 57% of Utah teens have a taxable income, according to Mark Knold, chief economist at the Utah Department of Workforce Services.
Knold said he thinks Utah’s typically larger size of families helps explain the trend.
“The more children you have, the less money [there is] to distribute out to [them],” Knold said. “Teens [in Utah] have more of an incentive to go out and get a job, to help out, or to get some [of their own] spending money. There’s more competition in the household itself for access to parents’ income.”
Another contributing factor, Knold said, is that the job market in Utah has shown 3% growth consistently for several years, leading to a higher demand for a wider variety of workers.
“We’re really in an environment where we’re asking for more labor than what’s available, so it’s really a strong environment for teenage workers,” Knold added.
To work full time in most states, a teenager must be at least 16 years old, according to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. According to Utah law, there are several types of jobs that can legally employ younger children. In Utah, a 10-year-old can deliver newspapers, and a 14-year-old can work at a neighborhood fast-food restaurant or in snow removal — though there are limits on the number of hours they’re allowed to work.
In recent months, three Utah companies have been caught breaking federal and state child labor laws.
Last December, 11 locations of the Crumbl cookie chain were found guilty of letting children 10 to 14 years of age work more hours than what is federally legal. A restaurant supply store in Salt Lake City was also found guilty of a similar matter, incurring a $17,000 penalty. And the Utah-based soda and dessert chain Sodalicious was found guilty of permitting teens as young as 14 to work past federally restricted hours on school nights.
The U.S. Department of Labor, which investigated those three businesses, found a 37% national increase in the number of minors whose employment has violated federal labor laws in some way since 2021, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
It’s no coincidence that those three employers were operating in the food service and retail industries. Knold said that, in Utah, the majority of teenagers get their first jobs in the service industry.
But what if a teen worker has other plans besides flipping burgers or stocking shelves? According to Knold, experience in the working world supplements a teen’s academic career rather than detracting from it.
With a job, Knold said, “you can show a skill set, you can show a work history, and also understand what the workplace is like, compared to … the school environment.”
In the working world, Knold added, “there’s no re-doing a test or getting credit for turning in late homework. That’s not how the working and business communities operate. So, you get that knowledge and experience in terms of what it will take to succeed in the workforce.”
How teen workers see their jobs
Sam Kinghorn, 17 and a senior at Skyline Valley High School, started working at the Chick-fil-A in Salt Lake City’s Sugar House neighborhood in May. While Kinghorn said he was first motivated by the prospect of saving his own money, he added that the experience of working in a fast-paced restaurant environment has reinforced a sense of responsibility.
“One thing I’ve learned is [to be] responsible for your actions in the workplace,” Kinghorn said, “especially in a fast-food working environment [where] everything is so fast-paced [and] you have to make sure everything’s accurate.”
While there are limits on the number of hours teenage employees can work per week at Chick-fil-A — a number that decreases in months when school is in session — Kinghorn said the environment is conducive not only to customer service but team-building.
Kinghorn described how many of his Chick-fil-A coworkers have flocked from surrounding neighborhoods, some from as far as Bingham High School in South Jordan. And they’ve mostly all stuck around.
“They’ve all decided to come here because they wanted the work experience,” Kinghorn said. “And once they’ve been able to connect with all of their coworkers, they don’t want to leave.”
This was especially important for Kinghorn when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, around the same time he graduated from middle school to high school.
Because of social distancing, he said, “it was really hard for me to talk to people. … So, getting this job, where I’m constantly communicating with other people, has really helped.”
In the summer, when he wasn’t traveling with family, Kinghorn worked 40 hours per week at Chick-fil-A. However, during school months, the state requires that he step it down to 20 hours per week. He works these hours consistently, he said.
Kinghorn has some coworkers who are 14 and 15. They can only clock up to 2½ hours on any day that they work.
While Kinghorn said his long-term plans likely don’t involve food service, 17-year-old Liam Pool, a high schooler at Summit Academy and a tire and oil tech at Burt Brothers in Draper, has found his high school job has helped him develop skills that will help him pursue his dream of opening his own auto mechanic shop.
Pool has worked at Burt Brothers since he was 16 — ever since he was old enough to get a license, which is required for pulling cars to and from the shop’s lot. Before Burt Brothers, Pool’s first job was also at Chick-fil-A, at a franchise in Murray.
Pool said that, like Kinghorn, Chick-fil-A mostly taught him about customer service. However, when Pool became old enough to drive, he said he sought out work at a mechanics’ shop, so he could build on what he already knew — and to stave off the doldrums of school nights.
“I would go to school all day, do homework, then just sit around,” Pool said. “I’m a very energetic teenager, so as soon as I could drive, I got a job.”
Pool’s interest in mechanic’s work comes naturally. Both his father and grandfather, he said, are skilled home mechanics who taught him the basics of such things as oil changes and fuel flushes. His favorite car to work on, he said, was the Willy’s Jeep that his father owns, a WWII-era model that was used by the U.S. Army and remains a collector’s favorite.
Pool, who said he has a 3.5 grade point average at Summit Academy, is scheduled to graduate in December. He has worked hard to graduate six months early, he said, and it’s going to pay off soon.
“I’ve learned a lot here,” Pool said. “And if I go to a trade school, I’ll be a step ahead of other kids that go to a trade school without the experience.”
Pool works 20 hours per week while in school, but will step up to 40 hours per week when he graduates. A typical day sees him come in after spending the morning in class, and working from 1 to 6 p.m. He’s part of a team of 4 or 5 people, working on each car that comes in. As he strives to meet Burt Brothers’ deadlines, Pool said he has learned the benefits of being efficient and skillful, all to give the customer a good experience.
Kinghorn and Pool share much in common with many Utah teenagers. Many have jobs, and those who do — within their legally regulated hours — find practical ways to succeed, and experience life outside of a classroom.
“This is where I want to learn and keep my life going,” Kinghorn said.
Kyle Forbush wrote this story as a journalism student at Salt Lake Community College. It is published as part of a new collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.