LEILA FADEL, HOST:
The worker shortage in the U.S. has been a boon to some. Teen workers are in high demand. Teen unemployment is the lowest it's been since the early 1950s. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, it's down to the single digits. Some businesses are relying more heavily on teens and young workers to help them fill roles usually reserved for people who are a bit older with more work experience. One small business based in Asheville is a good example. Evans Prater is the founder and CEO of Mount Inspiration Apparel. His general manager, Mary Grace Flattery, is just 19 years old. They join us now. Thank you both for being here.
EVANS PRATER: Hi.
MARY GRACE FLATTERY: Hi.
FADEL: So, Evans, let's start with you. What's this year been like for your company?
PRATER: Well, it's been quite a roller coaster. We actually have opened our third location and unexpectedly been expanding quite a bit through this whole pandemic experience. But at the same time, we've definitely relied quite heavily on younger workers as they (laughter) seem to be the only ones who are responding to our ads and calls for employment.
FADEL: Well, let's turn to you, Mary Grace. You're managing multiple retail stores at just 19. Is this the kind of responsibility you expected at this age?
FLATTERY: Not necessarily. It more so fell into my lap. I've worked in lots of leadership roles kind of throughout my past jobs, but definitely never thought at this young of an age I would have this much responsibility.
FADEL: So, Evans, what did you see - I know that you said a lot of people weren't responding - but what did you see in Mary Grace that made you think, OK, she's 19, she can handle a promotion to general manager?
PRATER: Yeah, that was a very interesting time period. We had been going through a couple general managers who just weren't a great fit. And Mary Grace actually started with us when we opened our second retail store last October. And it was kind of just one of those - you know, the second I had a moment to actually work beside her, I saw that she just really understood everything that needed to be done around her and understood how to deal with customers really well and with other employees quite well. And I just kind of stuck that knowledge in my back pocket until - in January, we, you know, decided that (laughter) it was time for another general manager. And rather than go through the whole hiring process again, I asked Mary Grace if she felt like she could step into the role, knowing what I knew about her prior performance. And she's been absolutely amazing. So it feels like a very lucky and good move all around.
FADEL: But also a move, I imagine, wouldn't have happened if you didn't find yourself in this situation.
PRATER: Correct. I definitely think that, for whatever reason, with so many teenagers (laughter) being available - not to dog on Mary Grace - but it's a, you know, a numbers game. And we went through enough people and had enough young people at the time that we finally found someone who was really, really good.
FADEL: Mary Grace, what are some of the benefits of being a young manager?
FLATTERY: I think one of the biggest things is being able to really relate to everyone that works closely with me and being able to manage people who are of a similar age. There's definitely struggles to that, but I think more than anything, I can use it to my advantage because I can understand where they're at in life and relate to them on a friend level more than just a manager level.
FADEL: Is it ever hard to be managing some people that are significantly older?
FLATTERY: Yes. It is definitely a lot more of a struggle, I would say, managing people that are older than me, just with the typical stereotype of having a younger manager. And a lot of times they don't want to listen to me because they are older than me.
PRATER: Now, Evans, you said that a lot of the reason your staff is younger right now is because they're the ones applying for the jobs and taking these jobs. Are you a little worried about what might happen in the fall with people going back to school?
PRATER: I was a little worried about what would happen in the fall. It looks like we have hit a really interesting sort of cycle where we have some people who return to Boulder and Asheville during the summer and winter break periods. And those people, you know, seem like they're going to be regulars during those times. Then they leave for the fall and spring semesters. And on the reverse side of that, we have people who come back to those towns because they're college towns. So I think we might actually be OK. It's looking like we've got quite a few people leaving and quite a few people returning who are all in that teenage and college demographic. So fingers crossed.
FADEL: It's interesting. Evans, you're investing in young people, and we've seen in today's workforce that people bounce around a lot, company to company. Is this a strategy to create a long-term workforce that might stay with you long term?
PRATER: Well, I'm sure hoping so. It seems like, you know, we do have that typical amount of, quote-unquote, "young person turnover." But we do have some really valuable people who are quite young, obviously, like Mary Grace and several other managers and even some 18- and 19-year-old interns who are working on some really fascinating and intricate projects for me right now. And I would be very honored and grateful to, you know, whenever they're ready to graduate, see if they would like to continue to work for us. Time has yet to tell, but it does seem like it could - you know, if you treat your people properly and with enough kindness and respect, it seems like it really could be an actually - a pretty good long-term strategy.
FADEL: Now, Mary Grace, I know we have your boss on the line, but do you see yourself in this job long term or at this company long term?
FLATTERY: Yes. I see it being my forever career.
FADEL: Evans Prater is the founder and CEO of Mount Inspiration Apparel. Mary Grace Flattery is the general manager. Thank you both so much for your time.
FLATTERY: Thank you.
PRATER: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "9 TO 5")
DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) Working 9 to 5. What a way to make a living. Barely getting by, it's all taking...
FADEL: You know what I was doing at 19? I was a grocery store clerk, so I'm (laughter) very impressed.
PRATER: I was dropping out of college and driving across the country, living in my Ford Explorer. So...
FADEL: Well, there you go. Well, it turned out all right, though - turned out all right.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "9 TO 5")
PARTON: (Singing) You would think that I would deserve a fat promotion. Want to...
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.