An old, heavy work truck rolled into the gas station, stopping at the pump.
A man wearing a frayed hat and gray whiskers looked at me as I approached, then said in a heavily accented voice: “Check de casings and fill de tank.”
I removed the gas cap, started the fuel, then hurried back into the station where the owner, Harry Labidee, sat at his desk doing paperwork.
“What are ‘casings’?” I asked him somewhat sheepishly.
Harry looked up at me, then out the doorway to see who had stopped for fuel.
“That’s Ike Rivin,” he said with a chuckle. “He’s from the old country. He wants you to check the air in the tires.”
The things I learned pumping gas at that summer job in the 1960s.
Most of my high school friends also found work, flipping burgers at Dairy Queen or A&W, mowing lawns, working concessions at the drive-in or downtown theater, cleaning rooms at motels, and a variety of construction jobs.
When Harry explained what “casings” were, the light came on. Harry wasn’t selling just gasoline — then 34 cents a gallon. He was selling service. Windshield cleaning, oil and tire checks were regular, not special, treatment. I watched Harry vacuum out more than one vehicle while filling it with gas.
My pump jockey job is long gone, but countless others remain for young people. Today’s business owners across South Dakota, and particularly in the Black Hills and places that depend on tourism, can’t find enough help. In part, it’s because fewer kids are seeking summer jobs. Why is that?
Lynette Engle and Kara Palmer both work for the state Department of Labor. Their program, Career Launch, focuses on helping youth find jobs, often entry-level positions that nevertheless offer opportunity to establish a work history. In South Dakota, the minimum wage is $9.10 an hour but many jobs start at $10 so severe is the shortage. For jobs relying on tips, the minimum is half that or $4.55 an hour.
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Finding summer work shouldn’t be difficult. Food service in general needs help, as do motels and many tourism related businesses. However, Lynette and Kara agreed that “there is a huge workforce shortage and it’s been the case the last several years.”
“They are busier,” Lynette said of today’s teens. “Kids in sports camps, technology camps or any kind of camp” is one reason, and in households where both parents work, they can afford to put their kids into those programs, she said.
Early school start times also work against summer employment, particularly when tourism lasts until Labor Day and beyond.
One statistic said that teens accounted for 25 percent of food service workers in the 1990s but only 16 percent today.
The Society for Human Resource Management, which studies and tracks employment trends, also reports that fewer teens are working at summer jobs.
“There isn’t as much urgency for teens to find jobs and earn money as with previous generations,” said Vicki Salemi, a careers expert.
This explains why in recent years the H-2B visa program allowing immigrant workers to fill seasonal or temporary non-ag jobs has been so popular.
Still, summer jobs can pay off in more than money.
It’s a starting point, and “it’s always been important,” said Lynette. “As we’re meeting with 19- 20-year-olds who have never worked before, they discover it is harder to find a job.” Employers want to know if they can get to work on time, she said, if they can get along with other people, and care about service.