Should Your Teen Get a Job

My first job was working at a tanning salon. It’s embarrassing now, but when I was 15 years old I was thrilled to be making my own cash, gaining independence from my mom, and hanging out with my best friend as we checked tanners in and out, cleaned the tanning beds and sold sunscreen. After just three months, the smell of burning flesh was too much for me and I quit the tanning salon for a job at a flower shop where I worked during the rest of my high school career.

Children, it seems, are always trying to become more independent. First steps, first foods, first day of school, and then suddenly they are driving and dating. One of the most important steps for gaining a little freedom from mom and dad is getting that first job flipping burgers, selling faddish clothing, creating lattes, waiting tables or monitoring tanning booths. Jobs provide teens with their own money, and therefore a measure of self-sufficiency.

But is there a cost associated with teens in the workplace? Kusum Singh, an education professor at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, conducted two separate studies on the effect of part-time work on high school students’ academic achievement. She found that students who worked 15 or more hours a week while in school showed a decline in grades and performed less well on standardized tests. These students also were less likely to take more demanding courses, particularly higher level math and science courses.

The U.S. Department of Labor says American high school students, ages 15 to 17, work an average of about 17 hours a week during school months, an amount that could jeopardize their school performance. (According to Nancy Axtell from Bozeman Job Service, teens may work no more than 3 hours a day on school days—no more than 18 hours a week—and 40 hours during school vacations.)

On the other hand holding down a job may be beneficial to teens. Experts in human development say some of those benefits include introducing them to the adult world and sometimes reinforcing what they learn in school. Paid work may also teach responsibility, improve time management skills, encourage teens to think about fiscal matters, help them put others (customers) first and strengthen interpersonal communication skills.

In my case, my floral revenue allowed me to drive (I wasn’t allowed to get a drivers’ license until I had a job and could help out with the car insurance), and I still graduated high school at the top of my class. Plus, I headed off to college with a stash of cash and didn’t have to work during my freshman year, a big benefit in my mind.

Some teenagers work to earn spending money, either because their parents can’t fund their social life or because they want to buy things (CDs, trips to the mall, ipods, upgrades for a car, designer clothing) that their parents don’t see as crucial and may not want to spend their money on. Sometime kids do work to help out with household expenses or to save money for college, but Axtell says, “In Gallatin County teens are basically working for spending money.”

Locally, the unemployment rate is very low—1.5%, according to Axtell, a Business Advocate at Job Services. Because workers are so scarce, employers are often willing (and glad) to hire young, inexperienced staff. Additionally, “teenagers have a lot of enthusiasm; they want to work and they want to learn,” says Axtell.

This paucity of employees is good news for teens. According to Axtell, teenage workers in Gallatin County can expect to make $8-$10 an hour, well above Montana’s minimum wage of $6.15, and the $5.15 Federal minimum wage.

An informal survey at “Mark’s In and Out” in Livingston showed that most teen employees were happy to have their jobs, greatly appreciated earning their own money, but were occasionally “bummed” to miss out on activities with their friends. Even though they missed out on a few things, these teens weren’t willing to trade their job for free time.

A few of the malt-makers were saving up for a car (or car-related expenses) or college; a few others were working just to have some extra moula for movies, music and fun. They all agreed that the job was hard work (there always seems to be a line at Mark’s), but that serving fries and bacon burgers with their friends was a social experience, too.

For teens that want to work, Axtell offers a few words of caution: “Because they are teenagers a lot of them don’t know their rights, and they don’t have the judgment of an adult.” She’s concerned that teens might not stand up for themselves when they are being treated unfairly—or even realize their rights are being infringed upon. However, Axtell notes, “Most employers around here are desperate enough to do whatever it takes to keep employees.” That means good working conditions and perks that may not be offered when potential employees are numerous.

I know I benefited from working as a teenager. In addition to gaining responsibility and money management skill, it made me a lot more realistic about money. Cleaning flowers, making floral arrangements and taking orders also helped me appreciate the money my mom spent on me, and the longs hours she worked to get it. Working isn’t for all teens, for some being a student is their job, but for those who can (or have to) work, there are many benefits they can take into the rest of their lives.

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CollegeBoard.com recommends teens consider the following when looking for a job.
To avoid time conflicts, try to plan your class and work schedules as far ahead of time as possible.
• Use your time efficiently. You can use 10 minutes waiting in a line to go over a few pages of assigned reading. If your job has a lot of downtime and your boss has no objection, perhaps you can use slow periods to do schoolwork.
• Be flexible and willing to make sacrifices. You may have to cut down on some things you’d like to do because of your school and work commitments.
• Start slowly. Don’t commit to working a lot of hours immediately.
• If you commute to your job on public transportation, bring your schoolwork with you so you can work along the way.
• Get in touch with your school counselor if you feel you would benefit from discussing your situation with someone who can help.
• If you have too much on your plate, admit it. Then cut back as needed.
• Schedule relaxation time. Everyone needs some downtime to stay happy and fulfilled.

Montana Parent
August 06, 2007

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