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Getting Your Teen a Summer Job

Teach your teens how to land -- and keep -- a summer job, and they'll learn values that will stay with them a lifetime.

By Sarah Mahoney

Help Wanted
teens working at taste of chicago
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Jim Krantz

With layoffs on the rise and family budgets shrinking, kids are more eager than ever to earn an income. In fact, 89 percent of all teens say they plan to work this summer, a 15 percent jump from last year, according to Junior Achievement, an organization that helps teens get ready to enter the workforce. But experts say the search will be daunting. "As unemployed adults scramble for jobs that typically go to young people, this will be the toughest summer in 25 years for teens to find work," says Gad Levanon, PhD, senior economist at the Conference Board, which tracks employment trends.

But it's not all about the economy. Part of the problem is peer competition. Today's teens are part of Generation Y (people born between 1980 and 2001), which comprises a mind-boggling 80 million kids and young adults. And the largest number of Gen Yers were born in 1991, 1992, and 1993. "This is one of the largest groups of new job seekers ever," says Jack E. Kosakowski, chief operating officer of Junior Achievement.

Unfortunately, the issue is also the kids themselves. Most employers don't really want to hire your teen and would prefer to give almost any job to an older, more experienced worker. "The knock on today's teens, whether it's right or wrong, is that they're irresponsible and don't have the work ethic of previous generations," says Shawn Boyer, CEO of SnagAJob.com. "That perception has a dramatic impact on hiring decisions."

The good news is that parents can make all the difference for their kids. "Ideal workplace citizenship -- showing up on time, doing your best, being respectful -- can be taught at home," says Bruce Tulgan, author of Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (Jossey-Bass). You can help your teens find and hold on to a summer job by teaching them important skills, and giving them insights and confidence that may even help them appreciate the importance of the experience.

Hiring Complaint No. 1
caramel apple vendor at Iowa State Fair
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Bob Stefko

They're self-centered and think they're too special to work hard or follow instructions.

The downside: Managers say Gen Y workers often demand more praise than is realistic and sulk when they feel unappreciated. Productivity is a problem too: According to a survey by SnagAJob.com, 56 percent of managers feel that today's young people just don't work hard enough.

The upside: It's true today's teens have been lavished with praise, but in many ways it has paid off. "These are incredibly positive kids, with a lot of confidence," says Tammy Hughes, president of Claire Raines & Associates, a Marana, Arizona, organization that studies how different generations relate to each other on the job. "Because these young people believe in themselves and others, they can make big changes in the workplace."

How to help: While your teen will bristle at the idea that people think she's lazy -- she hasn't even found her first job yet! -- appeal to her need to be in the know. Explain that workers are expected to be team players first, and individuals second. So in interviews, teens should be clear that they'll put employers' needs first -- even if they have to give up some prized activities. "Flexibility is the single most important quality managers are looking for," Boyer says. "Kids shoot themselves in the foot the minute they say things like, 'Soccer practice starts the third week in August,' or 'I'll need Thursdays off for band rehearsals.'"

Hiring Complaint No. 2

They expect to have a say in everything.

The downside: Constantly spouting off opinions makes it seem that teens lack appropriate boundaries. "I came up in the industry being screamed at by chefs, and I understood I was supposed to be quiet and take it," says David Adjey, a chef on the Food Network who speaks frequently on generational differences in the workplace. "So I tried to run my kitchen the same way. But this group has to talk back about everything." He's not alone in feeling this makes kids difficult to manage: A survey from CareerBuilder.com reports that 55 percent of employers think Gen Y workers have a difficult time with authority.

The upside: With their blunt style, they often say things no one wants to hear, giving an honest -- if harsh -- perspective.

How to help: It's great to have principles, values, and ideas -- and you should tell your teen that, but encourage him to be careful about how he shares them, especially during interviews. "The No. 1 thing employers are looking for from kids is a positive attitude," says Boyer.

Hiring Complaint No. 3

These kids can communicate only with tech.

The downside: Teens have relied so much on e-mailing, IMing, and texting they may have poor face-to-face skills. "Our clients, especially major fast food chains, say teens need lots of help learning how to talk to people," Hughes says.

The upside: Their learning curve for new technology is shorter than older workers', and they can seamlessly integrate tech into all their activities.

How to help: Teach kids how to relate to others by pointing out people with good skills, stressing hand gestures, eye contact, respectful language, and tone of voice. Also make sure they send a handwritten thank-you the minute they leave the interview. If your teen says, "No one does that," tell her that's the point. "Kids who do this are so rare, it makes a big impression," says Boyer. If your teen submits information electronically, explain that e-mails should have complete sentences that are punctuated correctly. And she should write in a more formal way than when corresponding with friends.

Hiring Complaint No. 4

They don't clean up their digital dirt.

The downside: For all their Internet savvy, teens have to be reminded that the first thing nearly a quarter of employers do after an interview is an online search. Posts about partying, suggestive photos, foul-mouthed lyrics, or even bad spelling can be enough to make them reject an applicant.

The upside: Blogs and social networking pages can also be a selling point -- 24 percent of those responding to a CareerBuilder survey say that what they learned online helped them decide a candidate was a good fit. Pages that impressed them, they said, were imaginative and professional looking.

How to help: Do a thorough search of your child's name and help her clean up her online image. And remind her that even an e-mail address -- like "Krazee-Sk8er" or "PrincessPookie1993" -- can send the wrong message. Help her set up one based on just her name or initials.

Hiring Complaint No. 5
kid brushing horse
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Andy Lyons

They have short attention spans.

The downside: Because they've been multitasking with tech their entire lives many teens come across as distracted.

The upside: Teens are what experts call "digital natives," and have multitasking skills that are key to the current workplace and that older workers lack.

How to help: Tell your teen to leave all his devices behind when he sits down with the interviewer -- even the subtlest vibration from a cell phone will say, "Here's another unfocused teen." And once he lands a job, suggest he ask his supervisor about the rules for cell phone and computer use.

Hiring Complaint No. 6

They don't get the dress code thing.

The downside: These kids can be slobs, thinking that flip-flops, shorts, and ball caps belong in every setting.

The upside: Teens tend to pride themselves on looking beyond someone's exterior, and reject judging people by dress, race, nationality, or income. So they're fair-minded workers.

How to help: Take them shopping for a good interview outfit and explain that it's better to be overdressed for an interview -- even for a summer job. (And be sure they know that sneakers aren't appropriate shoes.) "Dressing up says you care about this opportunity, and you're trying your best to be professional," says Boyer. Plus, it's another way to stand out from the crowd.

Hiring Complaint No. 7

They think work should be a party.

The downside: Some teens will delay a job search to avoid the possibility of drudgery. Or when work turns out to be dull, some struggle to do their assigned tasks.

The upside: They like learning and that gives them a great attitude about developing new abilities.

How to help: Reassure them that eventually they'll find work that's enjoyable, at least some of the time. "Let kids know that any job they take now -- even serving burgers, sweeping, and photocopying -- will teach them something valuable even if they can't see it now," says Kosakowski.

Hiring Complaint No. 8

They expect too much help from adults.

The downside: Kids who over-rely on their parents can seem helpless and clueless. "Companies are looking for leaders," says Lindsey Pollak, a Gen Y job hunting expert. "Any whiff that a kid needs parents too much is a huge turnoff."

The upside: Because they value their parents' input, they can collaborate well with people of all ages.

How to help: Coach but don't rescue. Volunteer to read resumes, applications, and cover letters, and do mock interviews. But then back off and let your teen take full responsibility for following through.

Search Tips 101 Keep kids realistic.

In this environment getting a job scooping snow cones is a major coup, even if it isn't what they were hoping for.

Push the Web.

Steer them to sites like Monster.com or SnagAJob.com, for example, or local online classifieds (Google the name of your local paper plus "help wanted"). Kids tend to think only of the stores they know in the mall.

Encourage bragging.

They should list on applications activities that show leadership and talk about strengths in interviews. Kids are often uncomfortable tooting their own horn -- but it's necessary.

Explain the reality.

Tell your child he may get only one interview for every 100 applications he fills out. And that may require putting in two or three hours a day searching until he finds something. Also let him know that there's often a new wave of hiring mid-July, as employers decide which of their earlier hires aren't working out.

Network on their behalf.

While you shouldn't take over your child's job search, let friends and neighbors know she's looking. Offer to make introductions and then back off.

Promote self-employment.

While they're looking, they can volunteer, intern for free, or start their own lawn-care or babysitting business.

Let them be broke.

If your teen is dragging his heels about finding a job, he may need to feel the painful reality of unemployment. When his gas tank is empty because he has no money, don't hand him the cash. Missing a great party will teach him more about the importance of working than a dozen of your lectures.

Where the Jobs Are

The forecast for teen employment is bleak this year, which means it's important that kids look beyond the obvious. "Leisure and hospitality typically provide 26 percent of summer jobs for teens, and retail another 21 percent," says Moody's economist Sophia Koropeckyj. "But there's been an unprecedented decline in both sectors, so the chances of finding a job at the mall are pretty dismal." Kids need to broaden their search.

Have them scour want ads and Web sites for less obvious opportunities in these areas:

Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Family Circle magazine.

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