Why teens are a bigger portion of Utah’s workforce than in any other state

A state economist says the LDS Church and larger families, as well as Utah’s strong economy all contribute to high teen employment.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gracen Whitelock, 17, Alejandro Mauricio, 18, and Fatima Ramirez, 17, from left, talk about their work at Stadler in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 10, 2023. The train manufacturing company offers an apprenticeship program, which is hybrid of work and school for high schoolers and Salt Lake Community College students.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

McKelle Creer has struggled to juggle school, athletics, clubs and her work as a lifeguard in the Kamas Valley.

Alejandro Mauricio, on the other hand, has found it “pretty simple” to balance his education, apprenticeship at Stadler US and part-time job at a senior care facility in the Sugarhouse Park area.

Creer and Mauricio, both 18 and about to graduate from high school, are just two examples of what Mark Knold says are different layers to Utah’s teen workforce.

Utah has the highest rate of teens as part of the workforce and the second-highest rate of teens working in the nation. More than half of Utah teens were part of the state’s labor force in 2021.

Knold, chief economist for the state’s Department of Workforce Services, said that’s because larger family sizes give teens incentive to work and the state’s strong economy gives them more opportunities for employment.

He added it has benefits for teens and the economy alike.

Teens are a foundational part of the service economy and “just another one of those intangible things that drives the Utah economy,” Knold said.

And by working, they get their foot in the door to the working world and a learning opportunity that looks good on resumes later in life, he said.

Knold doesn’t foresee Utah’s teen employment rate decreasing.

Utah’s rate nearly double that of U.S.

Utah’s laws allow people who are 16 and older to work in all nonhazardous occupations and jobs involving a vehicle as long as they have a license. Once teens are no longer minors, they can hold hazardous jobs.

Workers age 16 to 19 made up 7% of the workforce in 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That’s the highest of any state and nearly double the national rate of 3.7%.

The next highest is Wisconsin, in which 5.4% of the state’s labor force is 16 to 19 years old.

Utah also has a comparatively high rate of teenagers participating in the workforce. In 2021, 55.1% of Utahns age 16 to 19 were part of the state’s labor force. That’s the second highest in the nation, with Wisconsin having a higher rate at 59.9%. It’s also more than 50% higher than the national participation rate of 36.2%

Utah has had a varying rate of teenagers in the workforce since the late ‘90s, according to data provided by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

Since 1999, they’ve been as much as 9.3% of the workforce, though that number has dipped to as low as 4.9%.

Some states have proposed or passed legislation to roll back child labor protections in recent years, including eight so far in 2023. For example, Arkansas passed legislation earlier this year to eliminate age verification and parental or guardian permission requirements.

Eric Olsen, spokesperson for the Utah Labor Commission, told KSL in April that he isn’t aware of state officials considering any measure to loosen protections.

The Utah State Legislature’s business and labor interim committee on Wednesday discussed the differences between state and federal labor laws. When the two conflict, the more stringent regulation applies, state staff told lawmakers.

Members said conflicts between state and federal regulations on the number of hours minors can work likely have caused some confusion and led to violations, including recent fines against 11 Crumbl Cookies locations, a restaurant supply company linked to Kingston polygamous sect and four Sodalicious locations.

The committee voted to open a bill file on labor laws for minors and any other appropriate laws related to labor.

It isn’t clear yet what it will do because legislators need more information from the U.S. Department of Labor, said committee chair State Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo.

Economist points ‘right to the LDS community’

Knold had a quick answer for why Utah’s rate of teen employment is higher than other states.

“Sometimes you just have to look at the economy and point right to the LDS community,” he said.

Utah has larger family sizes than most states, he said, and families within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints community are larger than those outside the church.

With many families “probably spread a little thin against a bunch of kids,” that’s more incentive for teens to work if they want nice things, he said.

There’s also more pressure in Utah to “get out of the basement and get a job” and fewer resources to get kids to college if they don’t contribute to the family finances, he said.

The state’s strong economy also contributes to higher rates, Knold said.

Ongoing job creation means it’s “easier for teens who do want to work to find work,” he said.

There are different layers within teen employment, Knold said.

‘Never had the option not to work’

McKelle Creer has worked year-round at an indoor pool since she was 15. During the school year, she works about 20 hours a week. That increases to around 35 or 40 during the summer.

On top of her job and school, including honors and advanced placement classes, Creer has been “pretty much involved in everything” at South Summit High School. She’s the National FFA Organization president, vice president of the Interactive Club and has been part of Family, Career and Community Leaders of America and choir.

Creer also has participated in swimming, track and field and wrestling.

That load has made it “very difficult” for her to give 100%, and she’s missed out on family activities in the last few years. She cited missed camping trips, weekend getaways and trips to Yellowstone National Park.

She also recounted often getting home at 10 p.m. after school, practice and work, then eating dinner and taking a shower before going to bed.

Parents of other teens recounted similar experiences to a Tribune reporter through Instagram, describing the load as “too much” and talking about businesses being inflexible with hours or over-scheduling teens.

Earlier this year, the U.S Labor Department cited two Utah businesses--Sodalicious and a restaurant supply company owned by the polygamous Kingston family-- for over-scheduling teen employees and violating federal child labor laws.

Creer said she’s “never had the option not to work” unless she decided not to continue to any kind of post-secondary school. She also didn’t feel like it was an option to quit her extracurricular activities because they made her happy, “unlike school and work.”

She plans to work as a lifeguard again this summer but not into the fall, when she’ll be heading to Utah State University.

Most teens ‘don’t know what they want to do yet’

Alejandro Mauricio and three other Stadler apprentices will remain part of the workforce during their postsecondary education.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alejandro Mauricio, 18, a student at Highland High School, talks about his apprenticeship at Stadler, a train manufacturing company in Salt Lake City, on May 10, 2023, as part of a apprenticeship program for local students. Maricio also works part-time in the senior care industry.

Students start the three-year apprenticeship program in high school, then continue at Salt Lake Community College. Stadler pays them while on the job and for their post-secondary education, and they graduate with an associate degree in advanced manufacturing, with no debt and a job offer in hand.

They’re in a traditional classroom half the time and at Stadler the other half. They work varying hours two or three days a week in high school and four or five days a week while at SLCC, said Amy Andre, program development specialist at Stadler. Their hours also increase each year of the program, she said, from 26 to 28 to 32.

Mauricio, Fatima Ramirez, Gracen Whitelock and Alex Klement are first-year apprentices at Stadler. Ramirez and Whitelock are high school seniors about to turn 18, and Klement is an 18-year-old student at SLCC.

They learn skills in a classroom in the center of the production floor, then apply them while helping build trains for Caltrain, a commuter line serving the San Francisco Peninsula and Santa Clara Valley, and for Dallas Area Rapid Transit.

Mauricio’s mom told him about the program and he thought it sounded like an interesting field. He prefers it to his part-time job in senior care, which he says is stressful.

Whitelock loves field trips and was on one to Stadler as a high school junior when she learned about the program. She loves building stuff and likes the hands-on program and the ability to learn from people with experience.

Klement added it’s nice to “have people there you can ask questions and who are willing to help.”

All four students said they feel more prepared for the real world than their peers. They know how to handle money, show up on time ready to work and even do taxes.

“Most people my age don’t know what they want to do yet,” Ramirez said.

Stadler’s apprenticeship, though, offers students a chance to have a step up into the workforce and end up working somewhere they mostly know their way around, Whitelock said.

Like Mauricio, the other apprentices said they don’t struggle to balance school, work and their personal lives.

Klement snowboards “as much as possible” during the winter and mountain bikes in the summer and said it’s “pretty easy” to maintain balance. It’s easier now than it was in high school, he said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alex Klement, 18, a first-year student at Salt Lake Community College, is pictured on Wednesday, May 10, 2023, as he discusses the job skills he's picking up at Stadler, a train manufacturing company in Salt Lake City.

A different way of thinking

There are advantages to having teens in the workplace, Andre said.

“They bring new ideas,” she said. “They bring a different way of thinking about things.”

Though working also has positive opportunities for teens, the national participation rate is declining, Knold said.

Knold thinks it’s a cultural phenomenon, with parents not pushing their kids as hard to work as they used to. That could be because there’s more expectation for higher education, he said, and parents may be “willing to have teens forgo employment so they can maximize education.”

Parents polled by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan had mixed responses related to educational concerns depending on whether their teen had a formal job.

Just 4% of parents with working teens cited a negative impact on grades, while 44% of parents whose teens don’t have a formal job expressed concerns employment would negatively impact grades.

Knold said Utah’s teen employment rate is likely to have some ups and downs depending on the economy. But he added there isn’t anything that would structurally change this piece of the labor force and cause a significant decrease in teen employment.

Megan Banta is The Salt Lake Tribune’s data enterprise reporter, a philanthropically supported position. The Tribune retains control over all editorial decisions.