Today, more teens are employed than they have been in over a decade. As of May, the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows unemployment rates for ages 16-19 among the lowest in the past 68 years. That’s good news for anyone contemplating the next generation of leaders – and for our economy.
Many self-made, by-the-bootstraps professionals attribute their long-term success, in part, to “starting at the bottom” with a low-wage job. Having learned, first-hand, the respectability and value found in every type and every level of work, they credit their acquired leadership characteristics and appreciation for individual contributions to an organization to their journey – from the broom closet to the c-suite.
Affluent parents may not be as inclined to recommend, or suggest, summer work for their children. Perhaps this is because they have worked hard to give their kids a life different from their own, or want their children to focus more on their schoolwork. Or, maybe they place a greater emphasis on competitive sports with off-season training, clinics, and travel teams. Whatever the reason, it is important to be careful not to raise adults that have been sheltered in ignorance – highly educated, yet ill-equipped to hold down jobs, support themselves, and communicate with people from varying cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
The dividends of time management and grit are almost a given when learning how to juggle the demands of work and school. We place a premium on obtaining higher education, and rightfully so. Yet the experiences found in summer jobs are excellent teachers and leadership labs – without the four-year commitment. Here are four reasons why “hire education” should be a prereq for your kids this summer.
1. Summer Jobs: Create Empathetic Leaders
Far too often, the people emptying trash cans, mowing lawns, cleaning toilets, and washing dishes are invisible to the larger organization. Yet they are the team members who facilitate efficiency in the organization, in big and small ways, and deserve to be seen and appreciated for their contributions. Despite the plethora of entry level positions available in today’s red hot job market, many teens are uninterested – or unwilling – to work for minimum wage. Empathetic leaders, however, recognize and understand the importance of every member of an organization.
Thasunda Brown Duckett, CEO of TIAA, a Fortune 100 company, often speaks about the importance of forming connections with employees at every level of an organization, illustrated in a story she shared with the New York Times in 2019. After she was named CEO of Chase Auto Finance at JP Morgan, she made a point to meet with workers in the mailroom where she publicly articulated their critical role in the organization.
2. Summer Jobs: Provide Lessons on How to See and Speak with Everyone
In the increasingly divisive world we live in, knowing how to work with people from different backgrounds and lived experiences is invaluable. The young umpire, paid $25 to call a Little League game for 10-year-olds, is potentially getting a master class in diplomacy, de-escalation strategies, and conflict resolution. Taking a verbal beating from an adult coach over something so low-stakes will create a future manager or CEO who understands the value of respect and prioritizing what truly matters within an organization.
3. Summer Jobs: Give Context for Real-World Problems
Leadership qualities are not best acquired through reading or lectures, but through practical experiences. Rudimentary, experiential knowledge and awareness of a subject grounds ideas based on reality versus theory. The day-to-day interaction of an entry-level role serves as a building block for the much-needed confidence teens need to be comfortable functioning in the job market. Time away from their digital and social media worlds gives them a feeling of independence and accomplishment – while beefing up their savings accounts.
In the longer term, the teen who bags groceries, or fulfills online orders, has a broader understanding of a multi-step, consumer-driven process. That insight may inspire and influence future product design, workplace culture, diverse procurement initiatives, and supply-chain management.
At age 14, Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield had a summer job at the concession stand of a small movie theater. “People lined up outside waiting for the previous show to end, and once they entered we had a crush of hurried customers. The inefficiency was too much for me to take. I started going out with a tray and napkin, French waiter–style, to take people’s orders in advance. Happier customers, less of a rush for us and, as a bonus, I even earned some small tips.”
4. Summer Jobs: Provide Growth Opportunities Missed During the Pandemic
Coronavirus has been hard on kids in myriad ways – especially teens. Over the past two years, adolescents have been isolated at home and not doing the things they need to do to become independent. The pandemic thwarted the most important parts of adolescent development. Part of what helps young people grow is to be exposed to a wide range of experiences.
Following the lockdowns, shutdowns, and online schooling brought on by the pandemic, teens are eager for the normalcy of a summer job. Many business owners rebounding from COVID are rediscovering the potential of hiring young people as older workers have been slow to return to customer service jobs. There is endless earning (and experience) potential for teens in the retail, hospitality, restaurants, and tourism sectors.
From answering to a tough boss or dealing with difficult customers, these early work experiences help teens build a new skill set – and self-confidence. Employment allows young people to evolve different parts of themselves that are not tested at home, in school or sports. They will rise to the challenge, and it’s those challenges that enable teens to grow: make them work for it.