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Summer Jobs and US Teenagers - 2001-07-29


An estimated two and a half million American teenagers have found, or are looking for, jobs this summer. What jobs are available, how do teens find them, and why is the first summer job is considered a rite of passage in the United States?

Sixteen-year old Lily Gutierez is a lifeguard at a pool in Arlington County, Virginia. "I always wanted to be a lifeguard," she says. Sixteen-year old Lydia Ruesch and 15-year old Jay Lemus both work at an ice cream shop in Alexandria, Virginia. "My parents can't afford to pay for my clothes and stuff that I want," says Lydia. Jay adds, "I get to talk with people here. It's better than being at home, talking to nobody." In Montgomery County, Maryland, 15-year old Tiana Fields is still looking for a summer position. "I just want to get responsibility, learn to be responsible," she says.

Whatever the reason for the job search, whatever job they're in, these teenagers have something in common. They are seeking their first exposure to the adult world of work. Marshall Brain is the author of a book titled "The Teenager's Guide to the Real World". He says, "[For] most teenagers, a summer job is their first real employment. Part of it is learning to work eight hours a day at one task, so there's the whole experience of that. Part of it is being on time and having people depend on you. Part of it is learning about taxes, how the federal government takes money from you. It's a learning experience, because all of that stuff is unknown before that first summer job comes along."

There are all kinds of summer jobs for teens: swimming-pool lifeguard, store cashier, restaurant waiter or waitress, sales clerk, and janitor, to name a few. Amusement parks and vacation resorts hire teenagers. Businesses whose employees go on summer vacation look for temporary, low-skill labor. Teenagers with advanced computer skills are more likely to find a better job. Marshall Brain says, "A teenager who has computer skills is in a really unique position. There's a very high demand for technology people. You can accomplish things on the web or through normal software development processes that make you extremely valuable. As a teenager, if you know certain types of programming, you can enter the job market just like a normal adult." He continues, "One of the funny things that's happening - not on a massive scale but on a pretty large scale - is teenagers skipping college and going straight into software and hardware development positions because they know so much. They've taught themselves so much at home during high school that they're ready to go."

Some teenagers are just looking to make money, so they'll settle for any kind of summer job. Others see an opportunity to do research into a future career. Author Marshall Brain explains, "One level of [the importance of summer jobs] is just the money. But the other thing from a teenager's point of view, if they're thinking forward, they're thinking about what they might like their career to be, and they're using their summer job to learn about that career or to have something on their resume when they apply to college that will show interest in that career path. If a teenager wants to be a doctor, for example, they'll spend some time in a hospital. Or if a teenager wants to be a business person, they'll spend time in a small or large business learning the ropes of how the business works."

How do teens find summertime positions? Like adults, they notice help-wanted signs in store-front windows or newspaper advertisements; their parents may know someone who's hiring, or they go to a job fair.

In Arlington County, Virginia, more than 800 teenagers and 350 parents recently crowded a high school gymnasium to meet with prospective employers at the "Teen Summer Job Expo." Judy Hadden is the coordinator of the non-profit event, which helps teenagers find jobs, volunteer work, and internships. She believes a good summer job is one that introduces teens to mentors and good role models. "They're around other adults who hopefully are caring, like their jobs, and model good behavior," she says. "They're earning money so they have a good reason hopefully to follow the rules and be responsible and do what it takes to be a good employee. Hopefully, that carries over to their schoolwork. I think the connection with the other adults is really valuable for kids, because they're at an age when they're less likely to have communication with their own parents. They might ask adults whom they work with for advice about particular issues and topics, while they wouldn't [ask] their own parents." At the Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream shop in Alexandria, Virginia, manager Maria Swale watches over her teenage employees in a motherly way. Ms. Swale often has to remind ice-cream server Jason Lemus to wear his uniform cap straight, not on the side of his head as he likes. But Ms. Swale says she doesn't mind nudging Jason with the constant reminders. "When I have to repeat the same thing twice in a day every day of the week," she says, "hopefully it'll catch on. Some kids, it catches on. Others, it doesn't. But we'll just keep reminding them."

Maria Swale says she definitely benefited from her first summer job. She started out at that same ice cream shop 17 years ago, and she's been there ever since.

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