Home > Essays > Teenagers Working is a PROBLEM? I Don’t Think So!

Teenagers Working is a PROBLEM? I Don’t Think So!

May 31, 2021

The NYTimes has an article in their business section today with this headline and lede: 

The Luckiest Workers in America? Teenagers.

Teens are picking up jobs — and higher wages — as companies scramble to hire. But that trend could have a downside.

As a teenager who worked part-time from grades 7-12 in order to pay for my Freshman year of college, begin a record collection, and have money for movie dates and proms I am very happy to see that teenagers are getting the opportunity to get back to work! And the work they are doing will teach them lessons and give them experiences that public schools cannot begin to replicate. But NYTimes Jeanna Smialek and David McKay DID find a downside: some educators fear that the work will detract from their academics AND the hiring to date has benefitted white teenagers more that minorities: 

Some educators warn that jobs could distract from school. And while employment can itself offer learning opportunities, the most recent wave of hiring has been led by white teens, raising concerns that young people from minority groups might miss out on a hot summer labor market.

The first part of that concern, that “jobs could distract from school”, is invalid in this day and age. If anything, schools should be working with employers to integrate what students witness at work into their academics and using the students’ work experiences to illustrate the relationship between what it being taught in the classroom with the skills students need on the job. Teachers who pretend that what THEY teach in their classes is more important than what employers expect their workers to know contribute to the students’ perceptions that there is a disconnect between work and learning. There isn’t. When students work they are learning about human behavior and, in many cases, applying the humanistic principles they garner from reading literature and the basic mathematics and algebra skills they learn in the classroom. This connection was not obvious to me when I delivered newspapers, mowed lawns, did landscaping work, moved furniture, painted hospital rooms, or worked on an assembly line. But when I had time to reflect on it as an adult I came to realize that there was an explicit connection that an artful teacher could have made if they realized what I was doing apart from the school and demonstrated those links to me. 

The second part of that concern, “that young people from minority groups might miss out on a hot summer labor market” could also be addressed by schools if they re-directed the role of counselors away from preparing students for college and focussed more on transitioning students to adulthood. Our culture’s obsession with college attendance combined with taxpayer’s unwillingness to fully fund public education means that any expansion of the duties of counselors to address NON-college bound students is an impossibility. If we want to connect with all children in school and especially if we hope to help minority students take advantage of hot job markets, we need to have counselors who are connected with the job market capable of connecting able and willing job seekers to job openings AND to provide support for those who have never held a job to succeed once they have a placement. Instead of seeing guidance counselors and college placement coaches we should view them as “life coaches”. And to do that requires MORE counselors and, therefore, more money. 

The influx of federal money might provide an opportunity for additional counselors to provide not only the post-Covid mental health services described in numerous articles but the link to the suddenly hot job openings that are emerging in the coming months as the economy opens up. NOW might be the opportunity to redefine the mission of counseling, particularly in those states like NH and VT who have established mechanisms for students to get academic credit for relevant workplace experiences. 

Carpe Diem! 

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