Time for a real job: teen employment teaches responsibility and builds confidence
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, teen participation rates in the labor market hovered around 34% between 2011 and 2019, down significantly from the 2000 peak of 52% of all U.S. teens. (Getty Images)
Do you remember your first “real” job? The one beyond babysitting or mowing lawns, where you actually earned a paycheck. What did that job teach you about customer service? About finances? About personal responsibility and employer expectations?
For many of us, our earliest jobs built confidence and skills, while also helping us develop the experience needed to secure future employment.
Summer is the time of year when waves of young people take on part-time employment. If we want our children to grow up to be productive, contributing members of society, we must take intentional steps to get them into the workforce.
Encourage young people to start their search by exploring on-line job postings, filling out applications at several places, and preparing an “elevator speech” in case an impromptu opportunity arises to talk to a potential employer about themselves and the skills they’ve been developing through school and other experiences.
Fewer teens working
It may be surprising to learn that, even prior to the pandemic, teen employment rates had been decreasing for years. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, teen participation rates in the labor market hovered around 34% between 2011 and 2019, down significantly from the 2000 peak of 52% of all U.S. teens. COVID-19 disrupted most labor markets, and the customer service jobs often held by teens were exceptionally hard hit, resulting in the teen employment rate dropping to just 20% in April 2020 and then rebounding to 32.7 percent in 2022.
The benefits of employment to teens are far-reaching and well-researched.
Key social skills — such as working with others, interacting with customers, and learning to accept feedback — often develop through work experiences. Employment also teaches young people the importance of being reliable, flexible, and calm under pressure, traits beneficial for employees of all ages. And there is a specific value in allowing young people to develop these skills and traits in an adult environment, a setting different from work or school. Of course, early work experience also helps students build the work history and references so critical to eventually building a career.
We can all help prepare teens for these important early jobs. Through mentoring, coaching, or simply by being a good role model, we can help teens understand the importance of a can-do attitude, timeliness, reliability, and understanding the overall impression they make. Establishing work boundaries – no friends hanging around, limited calls, not asking to leave early – can help a teen secure and keep a job.
With the right perspective and approach, hiring teens can also benefit employers. Research by Drexel University highlights how employers generally view teens as being highly trainable, possessing strong technology skills, and having reading and writing skills on par with adults.
The bulk of entry-level jobs are in food services and retail. Many employers value the energy that teens bring to these forward-facing positions. These benefits come with the understanding that, at least initially, teens are not going to be as efficient as adult workers, because they simply do not have the experience. Employers need additional help and teens can benefit from part-time employment, yet the low labor force rates may reflect an underutilization of teen time and talent.
At the same time, it is important that we understand that not all teens are engaged with, or have equal access to, the job market.
Teen employment rates increase with age, ranging from 21% of 16-year-olds to over 53% of 19-year-olds. Rates also vary significantly by race and ethnicity, ranging from 20% among Asian teens to 30.3% of Black teens to 44.8% of non-Hispanic White teens. There is almost no difference in male and female teen summer employment rates, which the most recent data shows were within one percentage point of each other.
In addition, the lower the income background of the teen, the lower the likelihood that youth is to hold a job, with about 29% of teens from families with low incomes employed, while teens from the highest income brackets had employment rates of 43.2%.
Kids living in rural areas can face additional barriers, such as a lack of local businesses and longer travel times to work. Youth Employment Programs are crucial to helping low income students secure employment, and several specialized youth employment programs exist around the State. The Indiana Department of Workforce Development oversees twelve regional boards, each possessing a youth employment strategy. It is often the combination of structured programs, family encouragement, and informal coaching that helps teens dive into the world of work.
The importance of early employment experience remains clear, and teen employees need both training and patience. There will be mistakes; we can all probably recall some of our early work blunders. Yet when teens work, they gain confidence, life skills, and practical knowledge that can make a tremendous difference in their long-term independence and career success.
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