SALT LAKE CITY — Help wanted: 90 cents an hour, 12 hours a day, constant standing and possible inhalation of dangerous fumes.
Few adults, let alone teens, would apply for this job today, but Paul Harrington was happy to have a job pumping gas at a service station in Massachusetts in the late 1950s. "On Saturdays, I would work — no exaggeration — from 8 in the morning until 1 at night," Harrington said. He was 14.
Harrington's job now is a little less hazardous; he's director of the Center for Labor Markets and Policy at Drexel University in Philadelphia, where part of his job is to ponder why so few teens are working today.
Compared to Harrington's first job, positions available to young people today are practically idyllic; most guarantee them $7.25 an hour or more, and state laws limit the number of hours they can work and govern the working conditions.
Still, only 1 in 3 teens will be working or looking for a job this summer, according to the center's 2018 Summer Job Outlook for American Teens. Some states are even struggling to fill the plum of summer jobs: lifeguarding at pools, lakes and beaches. Wisconsin recently lowered its minimum age for lifeguards to 15 because the state has had so many unfilled positions.
Forty years ago, employment among teens was close to 60 percent; now it's roughly half that, in a decline that's been going on since this year's high school graduates were born.
"No group of workers has experienced such a sharp decline in their employment rate since 2000," the Drexel report says.
There are outliers in teen employment, however, and Utah is among them. Utah's teen employment rate is about 50 percent, compared to the nationwide rate of about 35 percent. And between 2010 and 2017, the number of Utah's high-school students who work rose 10 percent, making the state 11th in the nation for teen employment, according to the Drexel report.
That's still fewer teens working than were a generation ago, and labor analysts don't all agree on the reason. But they do widely agree that working while still in high school is good for adolescents, and with the right clothes, a respectful demeanor and a good attitude, even a 14-year-old can land a summer job with a paycheck. And when a teen goes to work, chances are his parents have worked hard, as well.
Why teens aren't working
In the year 2000, more than half of American teenagers worked, not just during the summer, but in any given month, according to Harrington and other authors of the Drexel report. It hit a low of slightly under 34 percent in 2013 and has hovered at 34 to 35 percent since then.
This year, with overall unemployment at around 4 percent, Harrington said he was expecting to see an uptick in teen employment, but in 2017, the numbers remained steady at 34.4 percent nationwide.
Some labor economists have speculated that pressure to get into elite colleges has steered high-school students away from unglamorous jobs that add little to their résumé. Others note that more students are in school year-round, or attending summer programs. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on parents who discourage their girls from getting jobs at restaurants because of the potential for sexual harassment.
One potential reason that has been dismissed is growing laziness. The Atlantic reported last year that the number of teens considered NEETs — "neither in education, employment or training" — hovers consistently at about 7 percent.
Christine Chu, an admissions counselor for IvyWise, a New York-based business that provides coaching for families on gaining admission to elite schools, said her work with students includes conversations about what they'll be doing over the summer.
Some parents and students decide that specialized camps or volunteer work might be better on their applications than a minimum-wage job. And some families seem to feel pressure to do “something prestigious, something flashy," she said.
Many students forego employment to get a head-start in their field, Chu said. Students planning a career in science, for example, often look for research opportunities over the summer. That doesn’t mean they can’t work, too, though.
“It's perfectly fine if you want to get a job. I had a student who did that last year. She did part-time research at her local university, but she loved baking and wanted to work for a local bakery, so she did that maybe 15 hours per week over the summer while doing research at the same time,” Chu said.
A recent Gallup pollfound that only 5 percent of Americans believe this year's high-school graduates are ready for the workforce. Josh Burnette, owner of a Chick-fil-A restaurant in Little Rock, Arkansas, has seen this unpreparedness in the young people who ask him for jobs, and he, with a friend, wrote a book about preparing for adulthood, called "Adulting 101."
Burnette said he wrote the book because when interviewing young people for jobs, “I saw a huge gap in their real-world skill set, in high school and even after college. It was pretty sad to see how unprepared they are.”
Employment teaches or reinforces skills such as showing up on time, being pleasant even when you don’t feel like it, and unfailingly meeting your obligations to other people. As the Drexel report says, it provides not only money but helps teens accumulate “human capital” — the ability to navigate human relationships.
Like Harrington at Drexel University, Burnette got his first "real" job with a paycheck at age 14, although he’d technically been working since he started mowing lawns for money at age 8.
Burnette's parents encouraged him to work and so “the day I turned 14, I headed down to get my worker’s permit,” he said.
Burnette’s experience illustrates a finding of the research team at Drexel: that the work ethic and example of parents strongly corresponds with whether their children work while they are teens.
Also, “As (family) income rises, the chance that a kid works goes up,” Harrington said. That’s not just because of the example the parent sets, but also because children with unemployed parents or guardians are more likely to live in a community without a lot of job opportunities.
This helps to explain what seems like an anomaly: that teens from households with incomes less than $20,000 annually are less likely to work than teens in families that earn between $75,000 and $150,000 per year.
About 23 percent teens from low-income families work, compared to 42 percent of teens whose parents earn between $100,000 and $149,999, Drexel reported.
The correlation between income and teen jobs helps to explain why Utah's rate of teen employment is higher than the national norm. But Utah's teens also benefit from a vibrant economy and the strong families that are a hallmark of the state, Harrington said.
“Utah’s been growing phenomenally, and there’s a tremendous pace of new job creation in the state,” he said.
“Utah has a history of strong labor force participation among adults and kids, and those things tend to be somewhat connected. The third thing is, Utah has a very low poverty rate; even though its mean income isn’t that high, its poverty rate is very low. What that means is you have a very strong work culture.”
Moreover, “intact families reduce poverty rates and raise the chances of kids working because a large majority of the kids grew up in a household where at least one adult works, and that reinforces this culture," he added.
Unlike some other states, Utah teens don't have to obtain work permits from the state or from their schools, said Eric Olsen, public information officer for the Utah Labor Commission.
Both state and federal law set restrictions on youth employment, and typically the stricter of the two is enforced.
For example, under federal law, 14- and 15-year olds may not work more than three hours on a school day and can't work past 7 p.m. from Labor Day to June 1 and past 9 p.m. during the summer.
Under the state code, Utah teens 15 and younger may work four hours on a school day until 9:30 p.m. They may work after 9:30 p.m. if they don't have to go to school the next day.
It's up to the employer to ensure that teens' schedules are in compliance with the law, and they have to obtain permission from the Utah Labor Commission if they want teens to work at times not specified in the code.
Teens also aren't allowed to work in certain jobs, like those involving machinery, Olsen said.
How to find work
At his restaurant in Little Rock, Burnette employs about 100 workers, about a third of them in their teens. He finds that 14- and 15-year-olds are excellent workers because the ones who look for work at that age are exceptionally motivated, and he’s willing to hire them just for the summer if they also agree to work during holidays. “That’s a huge benefit to me; I don’t have to go hunting for seasonal people,” he said. “Not everyone thinks that way, but it’s been a great hiring strategy for us.”
Young teens looking for their first job have a chicken-or-egg problem: how to get a job when you’ve never had a job before. “It’s all about presentation during the interview,” Burnette advises. “It’s about what you’re wearing, it’s about how you communicate and articulate to the person in front of you. It’s smiling, it’s having eye contact, it’s speaking with enthusiasm. These little things for a young person, for a teenager, differentiate them quickly.”
Burnette said he’s had teens with no experience show up for an interview wearing a suit and carrying a résumé. “You better believe we’re going to hire somebody that has that kind of ownership over the process.” Conversely, “kids that roll up in a T-shirt and shorts and have to ask for a pen to fill out an application, are going to be a little bit more challenging.”14 comments on this story
In Utah, age isn't a barrier to employment except during school hours, and if you're younger than 10.
“A lot of kids get their first jobs at 16 because it’s easier when they have their driver’s license, but you’re permitted to work as young as 10 years old,” Olsen said.
Among the jobs permitted for 12-year-olds are sale and delivery of newspapers and magazines, door-to-door sales and delivery of merchandise, babysitting and non-hazardous agricultural work, he said. And 10-year-olds can deliver newspapers and work as a caddie, even set up a shoe-shining shop on the curb, he said.