Why Teens Need a Summer Job
Working can teach kids valuable lessons and help them build skills to land a full-time job.
This summer’s job scene for teens is shaping up to be a mixed bag. In its annual outlook, Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a global outplacement firm, expects employment among 16- to 19-year-olds to grow by about 1.36 million. That’s roughly the same number of teens who found jobs last year, but 3% fewer than were added to summer payrolls in 2012.
What’s more, the participation rate of teens in the labor force, which tends to peak during summer break, has been plunging. It reached a record high of 71.8% in July 1978, reports Challenger. But by this spring, it had fallen to a near-record low of 31.7%, and the unemployment rate for teens topped 20%.
The state of the labor market in general is partially to blame. Teens are competing with recent college grads, adults who are having trouble finding higher-paying jobs and retirees looking to supplement their income. Company CEO John Challenger notes that retail stores are hiring fewer workers as more shopping moves online. Other traditional employers of teens -- fast-food joints, restaurants and movie theaters, for example -- are also cutting back.
It’s also true, says Challenger, that lots of teens have dropped out of the summer labor force to attend summer school, participate in sports or other extracurricular activities, or volunteer.
Life lessons. That’s all well and good, but I can’t help wondering whether teens are missing out on valuable life lessons by not holding down paying jobs. Showing up on time, taking responsibility, getting along with co-workers and supervisors, earning your own money -- and learning how to manage it -- are all critical skills, just as much as knowing how to program a computer or write a literate report.
In fact, finding a job is a skill in itself. I agree with Challenger when he says that kids need to “get out from behind the computer” and not rely as heavily on online job boards. “Many mom-and-pop stores do not advertise job openings on the Internet,” he says, “nor do most families looking for babysitters, lawn mowers or house cleaners.”
Based on my own experience hiring magazine staff, I always counsel young people to make personal contact whenever possible and to follow the classic advice of Mr. Miyagi in the movie The Karate Kid, when he tells Daniel always to look an opponent in the eye. For more advice, see Job-Hunting Tips for New Grads and . How Students Can Improve Their Chances of Getting a Job.
Building skills. Of course, summer extracurricular activities can be valuable. Playing sports teaches teamwork. Volunteering is a plus if you’re working in an area that’s related to your field of interest, says Paul McDonald, senior executive director of Robert Half International, a specialized staffing firm with offices worldwide. “It’s all about building your resume,” says McDonald.
Regardless of their major, college students looking to build a resume for the full-time job market should be learning technical skills -- Power Point and Excel, at a minimum -- as well as so-called soft skills, such as how to listen, write and think critically. “Knowing how to make a presentation itself sets people apart,” says McDonald.
Despite the so-so labor market, top students with the right skills sometimes get multiple offers, both for summer work and for permanent jobs, says McDonald. If you’re fortunate enough to find yourself in that position, he advises that you handle the situation diplomatically. When you get the first offer, be upfront; thank the employer and say you’re waiting to hear from others, if that’s the case. But be prepared to give an answer within two to four weeks.
And if you’ve accepted a job that’s related to your field, don’t change your mind if something else comes along. That can create ill will, and you don’t want to burn any bridges. Says McDonald, “If your decision made sense, stick with it.”