What happened to the great American Summer Job?

Teen employment

I got up at 5:42 AM to sweep floors, lug lumber, and do whatever I was told by my boss. By 11:30 AM, a time that many of my friends were rolling out of bed, I was done working my summer job for the day. I started my summer job between my 7th & 8th grade years. There were boards that weighed more than me. Once I hit high school, I started working full days, and continued to do so throughout my college summer breaks too.

I worked for my parents who owned a wood truss manufacturing business. The job left its mark, sometimes literally (I have scars), but more than that it taught me the value of a dollar and of an hour of labor. Once you earn an hourly wage, that new $50 Nintendo game just doesn’t cost $50, it costs 11 hours of work when you are earning $4.50 an hour.

I learned the camaraderie of work. I saw grown men struggling to keep jobs. Some failed. Some thrived. I learned the best I could to respect authority (I’m still not very good at this). I learned to be on time, to always stay busy, to do something even when I didn’t want to be doing it. I learned that pranks and joking around and ongoing conversations were crucial to making the hours slip by faster.

I worked when I was miserable. Some days it would be 90% humidity and 90-degrees plus. When I worked during winter breaks, we would work if it was about 5-degrees. I turned a corner once with a fork-lift and the unit of lumber slid off my icy forks. I couldn’t control the difficulty of the work or the working conditions, but I could control my attitude. Staying positive and happy and interested in the lives and interests of my co-workers, made the work much more enjoyable.

From a social and economic perspective, some of the people I worked with were less valued by society than others working a different job. I learned to try to see the worth and talents and redeeming qualities in all people. I don’t think I would’ve written books about factory workers and farmers around the world if it weren’t for my summer job.

Yet since the 70s, there has been a precipitous decline in the number of summer jobs available for teens. If you would’ve told me at 15 that I was lucky to be working a job during the hottest day of 1994, I would’ve laughed in your face. But I was lucky to have a job. The money and lessons I earned prepared me for my future more than sleeping in and playing video games ever could have.

According to a report, “The fading of the teen summer job,” by the Pew Research Center, in the summer of 2014 fewer than a third of teens had jobs. That’s down from the peak teen employment in 1978 of 58%.

Why the change?

I think there are some among us who chalk it up to “kids these days…” But that isn’t accurate at all. There are a lot more factors at play than the work ethic of today’s teens.

From the Pew report:

Researchers have advanced multiple explanations for why fewer young people are finding jobs: fewer low-skill, entry-level jobs than in decades past; more schools restarting before Labor Day; more students enrolled in high school or college over the summer; more teens doing unpaid community service work as part of their graduation requirements or to burnish their college applications; and more students taking unpaid internships, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not consider being employed.

Yesterday, I wrote about short summer breaks for K-12 students, and a few of my Facebook friends pointed out that their kids couldn’t get jobs that would only last 7-8 weeks. Employers didn’t want to train and hire them only to have them leave a few short weeks later. My post argued that complaining about the short summer was a #MiddleClassProblem since so many families struggled to feed and care for their children over summers. In some ways, arguing that your kid can’t get a summer job is another level of #MiddleClassProblem and points to what I feel is the bigger issue. There are fewer, low-skill entry level jobs for teens because they are being taken by adults who are trying to support themselves and their families working jobs that teens once had to pay for their first car or college. Those parents working jobs formerly held by teens are likely the same parents who struggle to make ends meet over long summer breaks.

Our economy has changed and each decline or recession has gutted teen employment. According to a study by CareerBuilder, jobs held by teens plummeted by 33% from 2001 to 2014.

From U.S. News & World Report:

Jennifer Grasz, vice president of corporate communications at CareerBuilder, says teens in the aftermath of the Great Recession are facing more competition for jobs than they did at the dawn of the new millennium.

“There’s this new competitive dynamic that teens have to deal with today that they didn’t have to deal with before,” Grasz says. “Teenagers are now having to compete with college students and even retirees or other workers that are more seasoned for opportunities because people just need to earn a paycheck.”

“The impacts of the economic recession – which left many employers reluctant to hire and, when they did, able to fill positions that historically had been filled by teenagers or young adults with more experienced or highly qualified applicants – continue to be felt,” the report [by JP Morgan Chase] said. “At the same time that young people are facing diminished opportunities to gain work experience, they are confronting a labor market that is increasingly demanding a more skilled workforce.”

If you want to really dive into this topic definitely start with the U.S. News & World Report story. It goes deeper into the other factors causing teen unemployment (fewer high school dropouts, more students taking college classes during the summer, etc) and the implications of teens not having jobs.

Regardless of these factors, both positive and negative, without my summer job, I think my future would’ve been much different.

How about yours?

Rachel Dagdagan says:

Great article and I faced similar issues in 2004/2005. I wasn’t old enough to work until my senior year of hs, and I worked part-time during the school year. When I tried to get a Summer job in the months before college (at Six Flags) they didn’t want to hire someone that would leave in a few weeks. Community service and internships would have also played role in not working (much) except that I was old enough to participate in those activities before being old enough to work, but then by the time I was old enough to work I had already satisfied community service and internship requirements. Oh boy, memories.

Kelsey says:

It’s definitely not easy to get a job as a teen today or 10 years ago! Teens willingness to work hasn’t changed, but the times have.

Becki says:

I had “repeat” summer jobs from my senior year of high school through my first year of graduate school: I kept going back to the same place, and they kept hiring me because I didn’t need any new training. Made that easier. Then again, that was almost 30 years ago (eek).

On the other hand, that repeat summer job gave me training that has served me very well in my chosen career. I often joke that nothing trained me better for working in a public library than working with clients of Goodwill!

Let your voice be heard!