As we look forward to summer, this is the right time to think about whether your workplace, whatever it is, could create summer jobs for teenagers. Yes, you.
Jobs help teens grow into responsible young adults, and they’re a great way to recruit future workers at a bargain price.
Every business is part of at least one community. Every community has young people who would benefit from paid work. Even part-time jobs paid at the low teenager “training wage” rate could make a big difference in someone’s life.
What you might consider a “crummy job” can teach important skills, like the importance of being on time and showing courtesy in the workplace and how to interact with a supervisor or a customer. Young people who have never been part of an organization — whether it is a business, a nonprofit or a government agency — can see for the first time how workplaces function. They can start to find out what kinds of tasks they like and don’t like, and they can begin to understand the requirements of different kinds of jobs.
In the United States, we are increasingly telling young people to “keep out” of adult activities, adult lives, adult roles. But policies based on good intentions can sometimes go wrong. Many young people now have trouble moving into adult roles. Even if they have a lot of education, this does not mean that they know how to be good employees.
Humans learn best by doing, not being told how to do something. When we teach teens to drive, we know that the classroom part of driver’s ed, which explains driving laws and tries to scare them into being sensible, is just the beginning. Most of their how-to learning happens behind the wheel.
How can teenagers possibly have a clue about how most of us spend most of our time — at work — if we don’t let them into our workspaces and our work lives?
Given a chance, young people can do remarkable things. But they need that chance. Earlier generations started younger, and farm kids in America still start young. When the U.S. Department of Labor tried to reduce “child labor” on farms in 2011, farmers young and old protested. In online comments, they overwhelmingly argued that work responsibility at early ages leads to a great work ethic and important skills. One commenter wrote: “Having worked for my father and others growing up, I have a basic understanding of row crop and livestock, electrical, plumbing, welding, money management, mechanics, and so much more. I am so thankful I grew up on a farm and was able to learn all that I did.”
There are programs that aim to place young people in summer jobs — but not enough of them. In recent summers, Minneapolis’ STEP-UP program has provided more than 1,600 youths from low-income families with training and paid positions. It’s a great opportunity for some teens, but our communities need to do more.
Young people in disadvantaged families, especially black youths, have a much harder time getting jobs. The U.S. unemployment rate for black 16- to 19-year-olds, for example, was 27.5 percent in April, compared with 14.5 percent for whites. Kids need opportunities to succeed — and fail — at tasks that really matter. Given the opportunity to be part of a team, many youth workers not only meet expectations but sometimes greatly exceed them.
A summer job can teach teenagers what they can accomplish without constant adult coaching. Madeline Levine argues in “The Price of Privilege” that teenagers from affluent families are disconnected and unhappy; many do not have the sense of self that is a foundation for happiness. There is nothing like the satisfaction of doing a needed task from start to finish, then getting paid for it.
Working demanding, low-wage jobs can be an important motivator for teenagers to succeed in school. One of my hardest summer jobs was as a packer in a candy factory. I slid just-made candy bars from a conveyor belt into slots in a temperamental wrapping machine. We college girls learned how much our feet could ache after a 10-hour shift standing on concrete, but — unlike the year-round packers — we didn’t have to depend on our earnings to support our families. Our earnings paid our college bills, and our aching feet taught us that we needed to get that college degree.
Consider giving a young person a chance to discover that, through his own efforts, he can be a success in one part of his life — that she can be a useful part of an organization, perhaps for the first time. Paul Tough (“How Children Succeed”) talks through the research that shows that “character” is changeable. Young people need challenges, combined with mentoring, to develop positive character traits like perseverance, conscientiousness, motivation and self-control. Summer jobs give them a chance to become stronger, better people.
Hiring a teenager is also a great way to build your workforce. If you are the first company to hire someone, not only can you shape her training, you can gain her gratitude and loyalty because you trusted her.
Until recently, working as a teenager was normal. Adolescent employment has been declining since the 1990s, a trend exacerbated by recessions. Some jobs that kids used to do are disappearing — think of gas station pumpers and supermarket baggers — and other jobs were taken by adults during the Great Recession.
This is bad. Teenagers who only interact with teachers, coaches and other teens have no clue what the rest of us are doing — and not knowing is, I believe, why so many of them lack motivation at school. They just don’t see the connections. Yes, people really do use math — when building houses, for example, or baking, or figuring out budgets. Yes, people really do need to be able to write a grammatically correct paragraph. There are thousands of jobs described in O*NET OnLine. How many are young people aware of? Exposure to any workplace can open teens’ eyes to possibilities.
So, what can you do?
You can think about your workplace. So many people are overworked. And it’s summer — some employees will be taking vacations, leaving even more assignments for co-workers. Are there tasks that can be peeled off to provide a first-time employee a job that really needs to be done? How could a young worker be pulled into your work team?
I know: It’s often easier to do a job yourself and get it right the first time than to someone else to do it. But think about yourself as a young person. Did someone give you a break or teach you how to do your first job?
Talk to your supervisor. Talk to your human-resources department. Check the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry’s helpful website for regulations concerning young workers. If your work location is reachable by bus, consider sending your job description to a high school in your area. Schools with a high percentage of students getting free or reduced lunch have more students with poor connections to employers. Give them a chance to impress you.
Find people willing and able to supervise first-time workers. Don’t expect teenagers to understand what you require: Spell it out for them, and assign them a mentor to help them learn appropriate conduct and dress for your workplace. If you have to fire a young worker, do it. But explain why. Being fired is a learning experience, too. Then think about whether there were holes in your supervisory strategy, so that when your company hires another young worker, your team will be better prepared to help him succeed.
Success is good for teenagers — success that they have earned. There are few things as sweet as well-deserved compliments from a boss or co-worker.
Deborah Levison is a professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota. She is writing a book on youth employment.