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Workforce 2021: Gen Z Is Diving In

Photos provided Cole Lindsay, 18, is working his way into the culinary industry. The slower pace of COVID allowed him to start casual sales of themed cookies while still in school. This month, he began a job at Sarah’s on Main. He’s mostly washing dishes now. If he likes what he sees, he may pursue a career as a pastry chef.

WHEELING — With the fallout of COVID leaving an abundance of essential jobs open, area teens are dipping their toes into an employment pool that is suddenly larger than the park positions where generations of Wheeling youth have paid their entry-level dues.

Food service and retail, in particular, seem to have fresh allure. So, a year or so into the market, does this leading wave of the Gen Z workforce find the water fine, murky, choppy or something entirely different?

Two city teens, both rising seniors at Wheeling Park High School, shared their initial impressions of the working world. Here’s what they had to say:


For Cole Lindsay, what may be the start of a career in the culinary world has been unfolding since the Christmas before COVID.

“I made some cookies for a Heart Association walk,” said Lindsay, who recently turned 18. “There were people there and they were like, ‘These are really good. I would buy some,’ and I thought, ‘Is that right? Would people buy them?’ ”

Such wonderings were put on hold during COVID’s initial lockdown phase, but by May 2020, Lindsay was baking up batches of themed cookies. There were hearts covered with royal icing flowers for an anniversary, baby buggies, birthday cookies with all sorts of looks (including his favorite creation to date, Daniel Tiger ones.)

A lifetime of baking with family and a single workshop in the art of royal icing were paying off in more than one way.

“I like to create. I get to make something that can be beautiful … or whimsical and then, you get to eat it,” he noted.

But, Lindsay, who is considering culinary school in general and becoming a pastry chef more specifically, knew he wanted more exposure to the field before making that big of a commitment.

As a result, he entered a two-day-a-week job at Sarah’s on Main that still gives him time to keep his cookie enterprise going. So far, so good, said Lindsay of his first couple of days in a commercial kitchen.

“Right now, I’m washing dishes mostly,” Lindsay said. He has also filled some food containers for the downtown eatery’s take-away dinners.

But, more importantly, he said he is watching. And, he is already impressed at how a professional kitchen team functions.

“I’ve learned a lot about how things work … If I’m a little behind in drying dishes and someone is ahead on what they are doing, they will step in and help everyone get caught up,” Lindsay explained.

“You’re all working together. It’s about teamwork and collaboration … Everyone that works there is very talented.”

It’s also been fun seeing professional utensils, some of which were entirely new to him.

So, he will be pondering such things in the months before making a decision on further education.

“I like baking because it’s very precise,” Lindsay said. But, he also knows enough about the business to realize food service can involve an overwhelming workload.

“I don’t know if I see myself owning a bakery,” he explained of the decisions that lay ahead. “It’s so much work. I want to have a family. I want to be able to spend time with them … I think I would just like to work at a bakery or restaurant — something like that.”


For Nicki Brown, 17, her unfolding work life has been about timing. She began working at age 14, meaning she’s already a bit of a veteran.

That first job was with Cold Stone Creamery at the Highlands. She noted the chain is one of few who will employ teens at the very beginning of their legal working age.

She made ice cream. She stocked the ingredients that go into the mixes of various flavors. And, she was out of a job when COVID hit in spring 2020.

That’s when she switched to retail, eventually securing a job at TJ Maxx, also in the Highlands.

“It gave me something to do, especially since we started quarantine,” she said of wanting to find a way to get out of the house.

This was especially appealing when COVID led to an erratic school schedule in the fall and she had odd open hours on her hands.

She wound up working at the retail clothing store three or four half-day shifts a week in addition to school. When in-person school resumed, she kept the job, but dropped to two shifts a week, then to just one.

“I do all of it,” she said of working at the store. “I put out stuff. I do cash register.”

Brown is not sure her dual exposure to essential work will directly affect her career trajectory, but it has provided more than just something to do during an odd time.

“My favorite part is just seeing people my age and making friends there,” Brown said. “They hire a lot of high schoolers.”

This summer, she hopes to continue working retail one day a week and to add one Cold Stone shift back into the mix. Some work may continue into fall, she said, even though her senior year will include a commitment to Wheeling Park’s dance team in addition to activities with a private dance school.

What remains will probably be the retail side, she said with a grin.

“I get a discount at TJ Maxx — all the Christmas stuff,” Brown said. “I like working more than school … Getting paid is a plus.”

That said, she has noticed a lot of college students seem to be dropping out of the workforce, at least where she is working. She is not sure where they are going or if they are working or doing something else.

“A lot of people complain about retail and food industry, but I like it.” Will she continue to work until college or even during college? “We’ll see.”


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