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It’s one of the more traditional summer jobs for students: Greeting fast-food customers, taking burger orders and working for or near minimum wage. That’s how Leo Agoi, who’s 15, is spending his summer — or at least 16 hours a week of it — as an employee at the McDonald’s on West Alameda Avenue in Lakewood.

He loves it.

Crew members Alex Chernov, 17, and Leo Agoi, 15, prepare food orders at a McDonald’s June 8, 2023, in Lakewood. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“I love my coworkers here. It’s like a good, I guess, social network. And I see a lot of my friends because a lot of people come to McDonald’s,” said Agoi, who worked at the same restaurant last summer. He got a raise this summer, too.

He liked the job so much, he recommended it to his friends. Many found jobs elsewhere. But others told him it has been difficult to get hired this summer and companies “they’d applied to haven’t gotten back to them,” Agoi said. “That’s what they’ve been saying.”

For the record, McDonald’s owner and operator Jessi Bucar is still hiring. Employees get free meals during their shifts. For those who stick around past summer, there’s health insurance, tuition assistance and more. But for the summer especially, she needs people who can work nights and weekends. And even for a summer gig, there are expectations: Show up on time, wear the (free) uniform, be courteous. Those who do well get a 10- to 15-cent hourly raise after 30 days. Too much to ask? Maybe.

“It’s really hard with kids these days because they always want to be on their phone. They always want to have their AirPods in their ears and in the food-service industry, hospitality is huge,” Bucar said. “When we tell them some of those things, they’re like, ‘No, I don’t want to work here.’”

Jessi Bucar, owner of McDonald’s in Lakewood, poses for a portrait June 8, 2023. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The summer job has evolved. There is still summer-heavy demand for gigs like lifeguards, rafting guides and camp counselors. But expectations of workers and employers have shifted in the past two years. Both can be pickier. Workers were able to demand more benefits and flexibility during the pandemic labor shortage. Employers, tired of getting ghosted by applicants during the pandemic, looked for ways to operate more efficiently and with a smaller crew. Companies like Walmart began focusing on hiring permanent workers rather than temporary seasonal ones, and went into last holiday season needing to hire fewer employees.

As workers returned, the applicant pool has grown larger even if the actual openings did not.

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Sage Hospitality Group, which operates 16 hotels and 14 restaurants and bars in the Denver area, doesn’t even look for a summer crew. 

The “jobs are year-round positions, regardless of whether they are full time or part time, salaried or hourly,” said Thelma Rockhold, Sage’s chief people officer. “While seasonal business absolutely influences the occupancy and business levels within our hotels and restaurants, the number of job openings is not driven by a seasonal peak.” 

Fewer teens work, a trend decades in the making

While it’s easy to point to the pandemic labor shortage for workforce shuffles and worker ennui, the data shows that the number of teenagers who work has been declining for decades.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Colorado’s population of 16- to 19-year-olds is the highest it’s been since 2000. But the percentage of this age group in the workforce has dropped to 39.9% from 55.4% two decades ago. 

That’s similar to the national trend, said Ryan Gedney, principal economist for the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. Declines in teenage workers started in 1979 as the early 1980s recession was kicking in. There were also notable dips during the Great Recession and, of course, the recent COVID-19 pandemic.

But for the past two decades, Gedney pointed to BLS analysis about why teenagers have dropped out of the labor force: more educational opportunities.

“In particular, teen participation during the summer has dropped dramatically. School enrollment has increased, especially during the summer months, and enrollment affects the participation of teenagers in the labor force. Along with the increased emphasis toward college, coursework has also become more strenuous in high school. In addition, teens spend much of their time on school activities — only sleeping accounts for more time in a teenager’s day,” a 2017 BLS report concluded.

However, there was an uptick during the pandemic when schools went remote and many workers lost their jobs. But the number of teenagers joining the labor force increased. Gedney pointed to 2021 data showing that the percent of Colorado’s teenage population that was employed increased to nearly 40%, from 37.4% in 2019. 

“I think that’s due to two reasons,” he said in an email. “Disruption in the school year due to the pandemic, which could have shifted more teens into the labor market and 2) an increase in demand for pandemic-services that traditionally have higher concentrations of teen employment (like grocery stores).”

Why it may be difficult to find a summer job

Applications to work for the summer at Kind Coffee in Estes Park began arriving in January. They were filled by early May, mostly by local high schoolers and returning staffers who are college students home for the summer, said Kimi Nash, who joined Kind Coffee in 2019 and bought the business about two months ago. She’s handled summer hiring since joining the shop.

She’s been fortunate, she said. She didn’t experience the recent labor shortage because word of mouth has helped fill Kind Coffee’s seasonal jobs. Two college students returning for the summer started when they were 14 and in high school. Another five are still in high school.

Kind Coffee in Estes Park began receiving applications for summer jobs in January. The spots were filled by early May. (Screengrab)

That said, she’s had to turn down “several” summer applicants.

“Everybody was great, but we just had our commitments already,” Nash said. “And it’s not who applies first. It was just more like figuring out who has barista experience. Or what do they say about Kind Coffee? Did they even know the business? It’s clear that it’s just someone sending in their application as opposed to saying, ‘I would love to be part of your team.’ ‘I’ve been there.’ ‘I’ve spent my summers there.’ Those are the ones who make their way to the top of the pile — when there’s that personal connection because it’s exciting that they want to work with us.”

Over at the Great Wolf Lodge, a resort and indoor water park in Colorado Springs, hiring director Yamini Shankar called this summer’s hiring effort a great success. For the first time, the chain held a one-day hiring event May 2, promoting it with TV ads and national campaigns to help its local lodges. 

About 200 candidates attended the Colorado Springs event. Shankar estimates 80 offers were made. Even though the lodge aims to have a mix of about 100 full-time and part-time lifeguards, they don’t want to over hire for the sake of having warm bodies. 

Great Wolf Lodge in Colorado Springs. (Handout)

“That’s something we work with our leaders on. As tempting as it may seem, please don’t hire somebody in the moment because the amount of time you’re going to spend training is a big focus. We want to make sure that whoever’s coming in is set up for success. That can only be done if they feel that they are the right fit and they’re able to give us the time and effort to do that training,” Shankar said, adding that the number of overall hires hasn’t changed much since pre-pandemic times. 

The past two years were more of a struggle, she added. Last year, the lodge held a hiring event every month. The company also started using more technology like artificial intelligence to better find candidates and respond to them. In April, they added a new tool to encourage younger candidates: texting.

The lag time between someone submitting an application and getting called in for an interview was taking too long. An application by text means they can schedule an interview within hours. Texting also supports the hiring process, allowing new employees to complete paperwork.

Inside the Great Wolf Lodge in Colorado Springs. (Handout)

“It’s played a huge role in terms of limiting that turnaround time. People get excited, ‘Hey, I got hired within a day,’” she said. “One thing we noticed with the current generation, especially for summer jobs for mostly teenagers, they want everything to be really quick. They want to see results really quick. They can literally apply online and at the same moment schedule an interview. They could be coming in for an interview within the next 24 hours.”

Come August, she’ll have to revisit whether another hiring event is needed. At that time, they’ll start talking to seasonal staff to find out who can stay longer or just return during the holidays. Flexibility on the company’s end is key to retaining staff, she said.

“The usual norm in hospitality is that you need to be available 24/7. You know, all days of the week. We are kind of changing that mindset. We cannot expect that for all positions,” she said. “Some people may just want to work one day a week and if we’re able to accommodate that business wise, we want to be open to that option.”

➔ Colorado Governor’s Summer Job Hunt starts 43rd year. Times may have changed but not the Governor’s Summer Job Hunt. The program targets workers ages 16 to 24 by providing employment specialists to meet with job seekers at any of the state’s Workforce Centers (here’s a list). The program is also for employers, according to the state labor department. “We have heard that employers may be hesitant to hire 14-15 year olds due to a combination of the young age, inexperience, and lack of transportation,” the department spokesperson said. The Workforce Centers can help employers figure out regulations and connect job openings to young workers. >> Summer Job Hunt 


Summer jobs of yesteryear

A lot of older readers responded to the recent What’s Working poll shared what their summer jobs were back in the day. Restaurant and retail work were 26.1% of the responses of 22 respondents. 

Others included “Tied long stem roses in greenhouses,” “packer for Atlas Van Lines” and  “Office work for a small local newspaper, The Jefferson Sentinel” (RIP 1969).

Minimum wage was the going rate and for some folks, although one person shared that their rate was based on “Per weeded row or bushel basket or 10 watermelons.” 

In the What’s Working reader poll about summer jobs, most folks recall their summer jobs — and that they paid minimum wage. Still want to take the poll? Visit

Ryan Gedney, the economist at the state labor department, didn’t take the poll but in response to questions about teenage workers, he theorized that the state’s rising minimum wage may be bringing them back.

“While I don’t have data to back this up, I do believe that the substantial increase in the minimum wage for Colorado ($7.78/hr in 2013 vs. $13.65/hr 2023) and Denver ($17.29/hr in 2023) over the last decade could be a factor that draws teens into the workforce,” he wrote in an email. “When I was a teenager, the minimum wage was only $5.15/hr in the state and even after adjusting for inflation that would still be less than $10/hr!” 

Other working bits

➔ 1,700 hotel job openings in Denver. That’s how many were advertised on this week, according to the American Hotel & Lodging Association. In a national survey of hoteliers, AHLA found that 75% of respondents increased wages, 64% provided more flexible hours and 36% expanded benefits. Even so, 87% couldn’t fill their openings. AHLA is growing its apprenticeship program, Empowering Youth, and supporting legislation, including expanding the legal H-2B program to allow more guestworkers and passing the Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act. The act addresses the historic number of asylum seekers waiting on the American legal process. “This bipartisan legislation would help hotels address critical staffing needs by allowing asylum seekers to work as soon as 30 days after applying for asylum,” AHLA said in a statement. >> Hotel Business report

➔ Most don’t know about Colorado’s retirement plan. The state-backed CO Secure Savings, a retirement plan for workers in Colorado who don’t have one, launched in January. It’s not mandatory and employers aren’t allowed to contribute. But employers must register in case their workers want to participate. However, in a survey of 51 Colorado employers and 211 workers, 78% of eligible employers said they weren’t familiar with it and two-thirds weren’t aware of the federal tax credits for offering a 401(k) plan. Meanwhile, 57% of workers said they’d be more satisfied with their job if there was a retirement plan, according to Guideline, which provides retirement plans. >> CO SecureSavings

➔ Equal pay law, part 2, passes. Gov. Jared Polis signed Senate Bill 105, the Ensure Equal Pay For Equal Work Act, into law this week. It was an update to 2019’s Equal Pay for Equal Work, the law that required employers — including out-of-state employers — to share the pay range in job listings opened to Coloradans. The new law clarified that the state’s labor department could accept and mediate complaints, and increased the amount of back pay that can be recovered. >> Read the new law

Thanks for sticking with me for this week’s report. As always, share your 2 cents on how the economy is keeping you down or helping you up at ~ tamara 

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Tamara writes about businesses, technology and the local economy for The Colorado Sun. She also writes the "What's Working" column, available as a free newsletter at Contact her at, or or on LinkedIn at in/gadgetress/