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Should you make your teen get a summer job?

POSTED May 24, 2018 8:29 a.m.
Help wanted: 90 cents an hour, 12 hours a day, constant standing and possible inhalation of dangerous fumes.

Few adults, let alone teens, would apply for this job today, but Paul Harrington was happy to have a job pumping gas at a service station in Massachusetts in the late 1950s. "On Saturdays, I would work — no exaggeration — from 8 in the morning until 1 at night," Harrington said. He was 14.

Harrington's job now is a little less hazardous; he's director of the Center for Labor Markets and Policy at Drexel University in Philadelphia, where part of his job is to ponder why so few teens are working today.

Compared to Harrington's first job, positions available to young people today are practically idyllic; most guarantee them $7.25 an hour or more, and state laws limit the number of hours they can work and govern the working conditions.

Still, only 1 in 3 teens will be working or looking for a job this summer, according to the center's 2018 Summer Job Outlook for American Teens. Some states are even struggling to fill the plum of summer jobs: lifeguarding at pools, lakes and beaches. Wisconsin recently lowered its minimum age for lifeguards to 15 because the state has had so many unfilled positions.

Forty years ago, employment among teens was close to 60 percent; now it's roughly half that, in a decline that's been going on since this year's high school graduates were born.

"No group of workers has experienced such a sharp decline in their employment rate since 2000," the Drexel report says.

Why teens aren't working

In the year 2000, more than half of American teenagers worked, not just during the summer, but in any given month, according to Harrington and other authors of the Drexel report. It hit a low of slightly under 34 percent in 2013 and has hovered at 34 to 35 percent since then.

This year, with overall unemployment at around 4 percent, Harrington said he was expecting to see an uptick in teen employment, but in 2017, the numbers remained steady at 34.4 percent nationwide.

Some labor economists have speculated that pressure to get into elite colleges has steered high-school students away from unglamorous jobs that add little to their résumé. Others note that more students are in school year-round, or attending summer programs. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on parents who discourage their girls from getting jobs at restaurants because of the potential for sexual harassment.

One potential reason that has been dismissed is growing laziness. The Atlantic reported last year that the number of teens considered NEETs — "neither in education, employment or training" — hovers consistently at about 7 percent.

Christine Chu, an admissions counselor for IvyWise, a New York-based business that provides coaching for families on gaining admission to elite schools, said her work with students includes conversations about what they'll be doing over the summer.

Some parents and students decide that specialized camps or volunteer work might be better on their applications than a minimum-wage job. And some families seem to feel pressure to do “something prestigious, something flashy," she said.

Many students forego employment to get a head-start in their field, Chu said. Students planning a career in science, for example, often look for research opportunities over the summer. That doesn’t mean they can’t work, too, though.

“It's perfectly fine if you want to get a job. I had a student who did that last year. She did part-time research at her local university, but she loved baking and wanted to work for a local bakery, so she did that maybe 15 hours per week over the summer while doing research at the same time,” Chu said.

Generation unprepared?

A recent Gallup poll found that only 5 percent of Americans believe this year's high-school graduates are ready for the workforce. Josh Burnette, owner of a Chick-fil-A restaurant in Little Rock, Arkansas, has seen this unpreparedness in the young people who ask him for jobs, and he, with a friend, wrote a book about preparing for adulthood, called "Adulting 101."

Burnette said he wrote the book because when interviewing young people for jobs, “I saw a huge gap in their real-world skill set, in high school and even after college. It was pretty sad to see how unprepared they are.”

Employment teaches or reinforces skills such as showing up on time, being pleasant even when you don’t feel like it, and unfailingly meeting your obligations to other people. As the Drexel report says, it provides not only money but helps teens accumulate “human capital” — the ability to navigate human relationships.

Like Harrington at Drexel University, Burnette got his first "real" job with a paycheck at age 14, although he’d technically been working since he started mowing lawns for money at age 8.

Burnette's parents encouraged him to work and so “the day I turned 14, I headed down to get my worker’s permit,” he said.

Burnette’s experience illustrates a finding of the research team at Drexel: that the work ethic and example of parents strongly corresponds with whether their children work while they are teens.

Also, “As (family) income rises, the chance that a kid works goes up,” Harrington said. That’s not just because of the example the parent sets, but also because children with unemployed parents or guardians are more likely to live in a community without a lot of job opportunities.

This helps to explain what seems like an anomaly: that teens from households with incomes less than $20,000 annually are less likely to work than teens in families that earn between $75,000 and $150,000 per year.

About 23 percent teens from low-income families work, compared to 42 percent of teens whose parents earn between $100,000 and $149,999, Drexel reported.

How to find work

At his restaurant in Little Rock, Burnette employs about 100 workers, about a third of them in their teens. He finds that 14- and 15-year-olds are excellent workers because the ones who look for work at that age are exceptionally motivated, and he’s willing to hire them just for the summer if they also agree to work during holidays. “That’s a huge benefit to me; I don’t have to go hunting for seasonal people,” he said. “Not everyone thinks that way, but it’s been a great hiring strategy for us.”

Young teens looking for their first job have a chicken-or-egg problem: how to get a job when you’ve never had a job before. “It’s all about presentation during the interview,” Burnette advises. “It’s about what you’re wearing, it’s about how you communicate and articulate to the person in front of you. It’s smiling, it’s having eye contact, it’s speaking with enthusiasm. These little things for a young person, for a teenager, differentiate them quickly.”

Burnette said he’s had teens with no experience show up for an interview wearing a suit and carrying a résumé. “You better believe we’re going to hire somebody that has that kind of ownership over the process.” Conversely, “kids that roll up in a T-shirt and shorts and have to ask for a pen to fill out an application, are going to be a little bit more challenging.”

In Utah, age isn't a barrier to employment except during school hours, and if you're younger than 10.

“A lot of kids get their first jobs at 16 because it’s easier when they have their driver’s license, but you’re permitted to work as young as 10 years old,” Olsen said.

Among the jobs permitted for 12-year-olds are sale and delivery of newspapers and magazines, door-to-door sales and delivery of merchandise, babysitting and non-hazardous agricultural work, he said. And 10-year-olds can deliver newspapers and work as a caddie, even set up a shoe-shining shop on the curb, he said.

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