With summer around the corner, let's rethink how our society views service sector jobs
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As the summer season begins, many of us are reminded of our first job. From waiting tables to checking out customers at the cash register, millions of Americans start working during the summer months.

While we often reflect on that first job with nostalgia, we don’t always recognize the important benefits that came with it. Many teenagers who join the workforce this summer will do so in the service industry, where they will start a record of work, earn the support of those who will recommend them for future opportunities, and develop valuable skills that will serve them long after they leave school and begin their careers. And for many communities in America, these jobs are critical to keeping disadvantaged youth, particularly young men of color, employed and out of trouble, reducing their exposure to violence during the pivotal summer months. 


With 30 million combined restaurant and retail employees, the service sector supports one in four American jobs and provides more entry-level positions than any other industry. Despite those impressive numbers, some critics tend to dismiss these jobs as something less than “good jobs.” Too many of our neighbors look down their noses at service industry workers — treating them dismissively or with downright disrespect. Service sector jobs give people of all backgrounds a place to start and grow careers, and impart skills and character qualities essential to one’s upward mobility, such as an ability to work well with others.


The service industry’s contributions to a skilled American workforce are not limited to summer hires. Ninety percent of restaurant managers and eighty percent of restaurant owners started in entry-level positions. At their best, service sector businesses work closely with year-round employees to encourage their growth and skills development. From support for educational pursuits, to establishing training academies and mentorship opportunities, they prepare employees for success inside the industry and beyond. These activities benefit the businesses and their employees, of course, but they also benefit our country as a whole because they help to improve the overall skills of American workers.

The nature and extent of opportunities offered by the service industry are especially relevant at a time when more than twelve percent of today’s 16-to-24-year-olds are out of school or out of work. And it’s not just young people who are having trouble becoming employed. In light of various distressing trends in family structure and dysfunction, educational attainment, and the rise in rates of incarceration, work activity among prime-age (25 to 54) men in America has declined precipitously, leaving seven million or more working-age men out of the labor force.

Some believe the answer to growing our nation’s workforce is as simple as just bringing back lost manufacturing jobs. While a strong manufacturing sector is vital to the health of the U.S economy, a realistic view of current and future job sectors is necessary. And in that respect, it’s important to keep in mind that the service industry is more than twice as large as manufacturing, employing more people than ever before. 

While there are many ways to tackle the issues hindering youth employment, we have a strong sense of what could work from firsthand experience. We have found ways to increase employment and connect struggling Americans with jobs in some of the nation’s largest cities, and partnerships with restaurant and retail businesses were essential for success.

Working to get the unemployed into the workforce and help them on their way to meaningful careers is a bipartisan undertaking. In President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaMillennial momentum means trouble for the GOP Biden's Cuba problem: Obama made a bet and lost Democrats need a coherent response to attacks on critical race theory MORE’s administration, the White House and the Department of Labor launched the Summer Opportunity Project, an effort to increase the number of young Americans participating in evidence-based summer opportunity programs, decrease the percentage of youth experiencing violence over the summer, and ensure that youth have the support needed to get a first job.

In former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, a vibrant local economy that created an abundance of entry-level jobs was key to helping those who were struggling. In fact, New York City gained back 300 percent of the jobs lost in the recession by the end of 2013, while the country as a whole was still struggling to recover all the jobs lost nationally. New York City’s example helps to illustrate the fact that even entry-level jobs can help struggling families and that having a full-time job almost always means being out of poverty.

Summer is an especially important time, as millions enter the workforce, to rethink how our society views service sector jobs. While there are many ways policymakers can help lift people out of poverty, they should value the role played by businesses that offer opportunities to the disadvantaged to help them acquire valuable skills, develop habits and find a pathway to future success. If we are going to reduce poverty and increase opportunity, we need the help of service sector employers.

Combined, restaurants and retailers across America are bringing more Americans into the workforce, and helping to create brighter futures for today’s newest workers and tomorrow’s leaders. That’s a contribution not only worth celebrating as summer begins, but also remembering year-round.

Broderick Johnson and Robert Doar are Senior Advisors for the Path Forward Coalition. Johnson is a Partner at Bryan Cave LLP, and previously served as the Chair of the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force and Assistant to the President and Cabinet Secretary under President Barack Obama. Doar is the Morgridge Fellow in Poverty Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and previously served as Commissioner of Human Resources Administration under New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.