Lilly Rios, 17, works the counter on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022, at the Dairy Queen in Rio Rancho. Teens are filling many vacancies at restaurants. Matt Hollinshead photo.

As Rio Rancho-area restaurants continue the difficult task of filling vacancies, one group is helping fill those roles in recent months: teenagers.

Rio Rancho Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jerry Schalow said teens ages 15 to 19 are filling many of the openings for the reeling food industry, whether those jobs are working the counter or in the kitchen.

“If you walk into any restaurant or retail establishment right now, and if it’s after school hours, you can see how many are really, really young,” Schalow said.

He also said it was harder in some cases for teenagers to land restaurant and retail jobs pre-pandemic because of the labor market, but now they make up the largest amount of such hires.

“It’s really creating a hard-working group of teenagers that are learning the importance of work, the importance of doing a great job and the importance of making money and helping the economy,” he said.

According to data from the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions, Sandoval County’s unemployment rate went from 9.2 percent in January 2021 to 4.7 percent in December 2021.

Schalow said that although that drop means fewer people are filing for unemployment, plenty of job vacancies remain. He also said the decreased unemployment numbers may indicate a number of remote workers who aren’t necessarily accounted for.

‘We’re always looking’

Whiptail eatery owner Chastity Bustos said her employees must be at least 19 to serve alcohol, but she is open to hiring teenagers to fill other vacancies.

Aside from helping ensure business growth, Bustos said a positive work environment “for the new, up and coming age demographic” is something she’d bring to the table.

“We’re always looking, because we’re brand new and we’re growing. So, I’m always taking applications to fill spots,” she said. “My ‘now hiring’ sign will probably forever be out because in the restaurant industry, there’s high turnover.”

Tony Otero, who owns the Dairy Queen in Rio Rancho, said a lot of eateries need to fill openings via teenage workers, adding they’re paying very good money to teens.

“You look up and down the street, everybody’s got ‘hiring’ signs. Everybody can hire people right now,” said Otero, whose staff is mostly comprised of high school kids.

He said his store has five vacancies.

“We need people now, as well as during the summer,” Otero said, adding that eateries hiring teens are working around those students’ extracurricular schedules. “This is an unusual situation we’re in. Five years ago, especially for me, it was easy to find employees… and now, we’re just having a hard time getting applications. … I know with the pandemic, a lot of parents didn’t want their kids working and stuff.”

Benefits teens bring

Schalow said the immediate benefit of teenagers joining the workforce is availability, despite the challenge of employers having to find time to train them.

“But once these folks are trained, they’re great employees,” he said. “There’s restaurants hiring someone that’s 16 years old waiting on tables, never waited on tables before. So they need to learn how to do customer service working with employees, working with customers.”

Bustos sees one key plus of hiring younger employees.

“When they come in at a younger age, they don’t have bad habits I have to break. I can mold them into what I need them to be,” she said.

Schalow said the opportunity for teenagers to get a job and make money never changed. It’s just that the opportunity’s made itself available because some prior workers chose not to return to the labor market or found a remote job.

Now that teenagers have been eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine for months, Otero said he hopes they’ll be motivated to go out and get a job.

“The jobs are out there if they want to come get them,” he said.