Teens in Pursuit of Hired Learning

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By Rebecca R. Kahlenberg
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 25, 2005

When Ashley Kersten, 16, went to Manassas Mall recently, she wasn't there to shop or hang out with friends. Rather, she was looking for a part-time job at a portrait studio or another store.

"Anything but a food place," said Ashley, a junior at Stonewall Jackson High School.

Ashley is among the many teens now searching for a part-time after-school, evening or weekend position. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 23 percent of high school freshmen and 75 percent of high school seniors work during the school year. Some teens want to earn money to help their families with everyday expenses or to save for college, while others seek spare cash for clothes, entertainment and holiday gifts.

Besides baby-sitting, pet-sitting and lawn care, what kinds of jobs are available? Teens are routinely hired as hostesses, servers, dishwashers or cashiers in restaurants, as sales associates in retail businesses, and as ticket and concession sellers at movie theaters, said Shawn Boyer, chief executive of SnagAJob.com Inc., a Richmond-based part- and full-time hourly job Web site.

Less commonly, teens can work as merchandisers who make sure a company's products are properly placed on store shelves or as food demonstrators at supermarkets. Salaries for these jobs usually range from $6.50 to $11 per hour, well above the current federal minimum wage of $5.15, Boyer said.

Ideally, high schoolers can find off-the-beaten-path jobs that correspond to their hobbies or career interests, said Nora Coon, author of "Teen Dream Jobs: How to Find the Job You Really Want Now" (Beyond Words Publishing, 2003). For example, music enthusiasts can become paid deejays, chocolate lovers can make candy to sell at farmers markets and art aficionados can teach art at a community center, she said.

For any type of work, employment experts recommend several job-hunting strategies: Ask friends, neighbors, relatives and guidance counselors if they know of job openings; look at classified ads in newspapers as well as online at job Web sites where you can quickly evaluate and apply for several positions at once; or simply walk into a store off the street and ask for a job.

On application forms, list extracurricular activities if you don't have work experience so potential employers "know you're not a couch potato," Boyer advised. Proofread each form multiple times to ensure accuracy. "One of the easiest ways to have an employer throw an application in the trash is to misspell a simple word like 'Thursday' or to write in all lower-case letters," he said.

Don't seek positions where you will have to work too much, said Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology at Philadelphia's Temple University. In his studies of the effects of working on adolescent development, he has found that teens who work 15 or more hours per school week tend to concentrate less on schoolwork, spend less time on homework and extracurricular activities, use drugs and alcohol more frequently, and become more distant from parents compared with students who work fewer hours.

"The older you are, the more hours you can withstand without seeing harmful effects," Steinberg said. "But generally, no [teen] age group does well over 20 hours per week."

Finally, once on the job, don't assume a boss will always look out for your safety. "First-line supervisors come and go a lot and they may or may not be acquainted with child labor laws, so they unknowingly or uncaringly assign jobs that are not allowed" for anyone under age 18, said Darlene Adkins, coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition run by the District-based National Consumers League. She added that parents need to remain vigilant about the type of work their teens perform. "They need to get beyond, 'Hi, Suzie, how was your day at work?' " she said.

In a safe environment, high schoolers who work part time during the school year can reap non-monetary benefits. For example, they can learn how to interact with customers and how a business works, and gain exposure to new technologies, said Al Robinson, deputy administrator for the Wage and Hour Division at the Department of Labor. "There are a lot of educational aspects to working that carry through life no matter what teens end up doing," he said.

That has been the case for Ashley Kersten, who worked as an attendant at a tanning salon part of her sophomore year. "I learned how to get along with people I don't like and how to compromise," she said. Also, she learned a lot about how tanning affects one's skin, and noted, "For myself, I wouldn't do it."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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