Drew Huffman started a mobile detailing business when he was in high school. The labor force participation rate for teens across the U.S. has been decreasing for decades. / Photo courtesy of Drew’s Mobile Detail
By MATT BLOIS
Teens in Williamson County are less likely to join the labor force than teens in other Tennessee counties, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Over the last decade, Williamson County has consistently had one of the highest labor force participation rates in the state for residents between the ages of 25 and 64.
The labor force participation rate measures the percentage of the population that is working or looking for work.
More than 80% of all residents between 25 and 64 in Williamson County were part of the labor force in 2016, slightly lower than Rutherford and Davidson counties.
However, the county’s labor force participation rate for 16 to 19 year olds is closer to the middle of the pack.
In 2016, about 38% of 16 to 19 year olds in Williamson County were working or looking for work. More than half of the 16 to 19 years olds in Sevier County were part of the labor force that year.
According to a 2017 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, teen labor force participation across the country has been declining since the 1970s when it peaked at about 58%.
Teen labor force participation dropped rapidly during the Great Recession and has remained low since. About a third of American teenagers are now part of the workforce. The numbers in Williamson County roughly match the nationwide trend .
After learning this from @Forbes article “In 1948 and 1978, 57% and 58% of 16-19 year-olds had a paid summer job. By 2017, only 35% reported having a summer job.” I asked a few friends of mine to tell me their summer jobs and here’s what they said…feel free to share yours pic.twitter.com/79QmomcY8R
— Matt Largen (@MattLargen) March 31, 2019
Jessica Stollings, a consultant who works with companies to improve communication among employees from different generations, said teenagers in places like Williamson County are probably choosing to enter the workforce later.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, teens are now placing a bigger emphasis on education. Stollings said they might also be working jobs that aren’t captured in labor statistics.
“They’re doing a lot more innovative and creative things like selling things online or a YouTube channel, an Etsy store. It’s kind of a new normal. There’s a shift and they’re taking advantage of those opportunities,” she said. “The downside is you’re not learning how to interact with people, how to show up at a certain time and what that means.”
Blake Haines owns more than two dozen Sonic franchises across Middle Tennessee and Northern Alabama, and he employees a lot of teenagers.
He said working at a place like Sonic can teach teenagers some of the skills they might miss out on if they are operating a store on Etsy.
“It’s going to be tough because you have to balance your life stuff and all the other things you’ve got going on,” he said. “The advantage is you learn how to communicate with people. You learn how to stick to a schedule … We hire people at 18 as shift leaders, so they get management experience.”
During the past several years, Haines said the number of teenagers applying to Sonic locations in Middle Tennessee has dropped. That’s probably due in part to a tight labor market, but he also attributed the drop to Williamson County’s economic prosperity.
“I believe what’s happening is that the economy is doing well. It’s doing very well. A lot of the teenagers out there don’t have to work, especially in Williamson County. Williamson County is a very affluent area,” he said.
According to Haines, it’s harder to find teenage workers in Williamson County than other counties, but there are still lots of young people working at Sonic. Other Williamson County teenagers are starting their own businesses.
Next year, Williamson County Schools will open its Entrepreneurship Innovation Center, where high school students will work on business ideas for class credit under the mentorship of volunteers from the business community. More than 100 students have applied to the program.
When he was a student at Ravenwood High School, Drew Huffman worked as a cook and a grocery store stocker. He wasn’t thrilled with those jobs, but a neighbor saw him detailing his own car and suggested he start a business.
He’s been running Drew’s Mobile Detail since 2015. Last year, he bought a van and filled it with detailing supplies so he can drive to customers at home or work.
“I’ve been working since I was 14 … In Williamson County a lot of kids will get whatever they want when they want. Especially, being at Ravenwood,” he said. “I feel like if you’re working at a young age and you’re having to pay for stuff, you’re already getting experience and wisdom under your belt. You know what it’s like to pay for something.”
After graduating from high school, Huffman enrolled in some business courses at Columbia State Community College, but eventually had too much detailing business to balance work and school. Now, he’s focusing on detailing full time.
“I like knowing that detailing is what I want to do,” he said. “Most kids in college these days, they go and study something … They switch up their majors and still don’t know what they want to do. I like having the fact that I have a set plan.”
Huffman’s business is almost the archetypal, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps success story of the 20th century. But Stollings warned that the success stories of the 21st century might sound different.
“I think we have to be really careful to not forecast the next generation based on what we went through because they’re in a totally different world,” she said. “On the other hand, there’s great value in these opportunities and they need to learn from them.”