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Summer jobs for young people not as common

Issue Date: July 7, 2021
By Kevin Hecteman

Where have all the summer jobs gone? Or the teenagers and college students who used to fill them?

Siskiyou County hay farmer Brandon Fawaz says there's been a shift from years past.

"I haven't hired a high school or college kid for probably five years now," he said, noting his employees are "for sure all older."

Tom Ikeda, who grows vegetables near Oceano in San Luis Obispo County, said the shift has been years in the making. Working the fields, he said, used to be a summer job for high school students, but a transition occurred in the 1970s and by the 1980s, "that became a lot more rare."

Federal jobs data bear out the farmers' observations. The average age of all hired farm employees in the United States rose from 35.7 to 41.6 years from 2006 to 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. That was driven largely by employees born outside the U.S. as fewer young immigrants entered the farm workforce. The average age of U.S.-born farm employees was 39.5 years in 2019, up from 35.7 in 2006, USDA reported.

Ikeda said he believes young people nowadays simply don't have as much exposure to farm life in their families or communities, given that only 1% to 2% of the U.S. population is now engaged in production agriculture.

"Back when I was growing up, the community was heavily involved in agriculture or the support industries," Ikeda said. "Because of that, I think agriculture or ag-support jobs were much more prevalent, and it was more a part of your life growing up."

Because very few people today remain in agriculture or have ties to the farm, he said, those job opportunities are not as readily available and aren't on the forefront of younger people's minds.

Fawaz said he thinks higher wages is not the issue, as he pays above the minimum. He noted most of his employees have worked at his operation for five to 11 years, and one employee has more than 20 years of service.

"I think there's just a philosophical change in what people today feel like they need to do in order to survive," Fawaz said. "And I think everybody knows that through various means, there is definite safety nets that will keep them from starving and being homeless. So the perceived need is just less than it used to be."

Summer hires, if there were any, would be engaged in irrigation work and running farm equipment.

Fawaz said he used to have teenagers as young as 16 run machinery and bale hay, but it would be "tough to legally do" today.

"If you wait till they're 19, they're already a step behind what we're used to in the world," he said, adding that skills he used to find in 16-year-olds now appear to be lacking in many 18- and 19-year-olds today. It's tough to teach people who are older how to drive a manual transmission, he said.

"Those T-shirts that are a joke about the manual transmission being an anti-theft device—there's some truth to that now," Fawaz said.

Fawaz and Ikeda are familiar with summertime wor: Fawaz launched the hay-hauling business as an FFA project in high school that evolved into his present operation, and Ikeda is a third-generation farmer who grew up in the family business.

The dearth of summertime job seekers is part of a larger trend—one only slightly interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2020, Ikeda said finding enough employees wasn't as big of a problem because the pandemic did not shut down agricultural businesses, which were considered essential, though people in other impacted industries such as hospitality were looking for jobs. This year, that has changed, he said, with last year's prospective employees looking for whatever they could get.

Ikeda noted that last year, he had heard of several young, college-educated people looking to make a change in their career consider jobs in agriculture because the sector is essential.

As businesses reopen, however, the chronic shortage for employees has returned, and people can "pick and choose the job," Ikeda said.

"It just seems like overall there aren't as many people looking for work in the ag industry," he said.

Fawaz said he's given the issue a lot of thought but has no easy answers.

"I think that there has to be a fundamental shift in people's mindset of having to work in order to survive," he said, noting the effects of the pandemic.

"Who would have ever thought the government could tell you to close your business and then [say], oh, we'll pay you still something to be closed?" he asked. "There is no perceived and maybe even actual need to work in order to survive."

Calling attitudes toward work a "cultural change," Fawaz said he's adapting by adjusting hay-bale sizes.

"When I was 25," Fawaz said, "if you'd asked me what the greatest hindrance to me growing my farm business would have been, I would have said without a doubt it's access to capital."

Now? "I could access capital and borrow myself into an oblivion now, that I don't know how I'd ever dig out of, without a problem," he said. "I can't hire the labor."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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