Put teens to work - for them and us

Do you remember your first “real” job? The job 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 early jobs built confidence and skills while helping us develop the experience needed for future employment. Summer is when waves of young people seek part-time employment. If we want our children to grow up to be productive, contributing members of society, we must take intentional steps and help them into the workforce.

The benefits of teen employment are far reaching and well researched. Work experiences can develop key social skills, like collaboration, addressing challenging customers, and accepting feedback. Work teaches young people the importance of being reliable, flexible and calm under pressure.

Brookings Institute research found value in allowing teens to develop these skills and traits in an adult environment, separate from sports or school. Early work experience also helps students build resumes and references that are critical to future careers.

With the right perspective and approach, hiring teens can greatly benefit employers. Drexel University researchers found employers generally view teens as highly trainable, with strong technology skills, and reading and writing skills on par with adults.

Most entry-level jobs are in food services and retail, and employers often value the energy teens bring to these customer-facing positions. These benefits come with the understanding that, at least initially, teens won’t be as efficient as adult workers because they simply do not have the experience. Carol Rogers, deputy director and CIO at the Indiana Business Research Center, says “If you're able to teach (teens) and harness their innate enthusiasm and excitement, that's really a treasure, because it does resonate with people.”

While teen employment offers benefits for both students and employers, many teens struggle to find both summer and year-round employment. Teen labor force participation rates have finally started to rebound from historically low rates during the recession.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, youth employment rates jumped 12.4 percent last summer with a total of 53.2 percent of youth ages 16 to 24 employed between April and July. Experts remain hopeful that Indiana’s current tight labor market will translate into increased summer job opportunities for teens.

We can help prepare teens for these important early jobs. Through mentoring, coaching, or simply being a good role model, we can help teens understand the importance of dressing for work, managing the impression they make and establishing appropriate work boundaries – no visits from friends, limiting phone use and not asking to leave early.

Networking habits important to adult career success can also greatly assist teen employment efforts. Encourage them to knock on doors, leverage their existing connections with family and friends, and be prepared with an elevator speech for impromptu opportunities.

We also must acknowledge that not every teen has equal access to the job market. Drexel University’s 2016 study of teen summer jobs found less than 22 percent of teens from low-income families were employed, compared to nearly 41 percent of teens from higher income homes. Kids in rural areas can face additional barriers, such as a lack of local businesses and longer travel times.

Youth employment programs are crucial to helping low-income students secure employment. Several specialized youth employment programs exist around the state. The Indiana Department of Workforce Development oversees 12 regional boards, each with a youth employment strategy. In Ohio County, reach out to WorkOne Southeast for services. It’s often the combination of structured programs, family encouragement and informal coaching that helps teens dive into the world of work.

Many students today have an array of summer options, including specialized sports and academic camps, SAT test prep, travel and internships. Yet the importance of early employment experience remains clear.

When teens work they gain confidence, life skills and practical knowledge that can make a tremendous difference in their long-term career success. Teen employees need both training and patience. There will be mistakes; we can all probably recall some of our early work blunders. Yet it’s precisely these good and bad experiences that shape today’s teenagers into the leaders, taxpayers and caregivers of the future.

Tami Silverman is the president and CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. She may be reached at iyi@iyi.org or on Twitter at @Tami_IYI