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Teens today want jobs for many of the same reasons you did when you were their age: money, freedom, responsibility, and a desire to be treated like an adult. Though the number of employment opportunities continues to decline, nearly 80 percent of teens say they want to work, and some 1.9 million 15- to 17-year-olds actually held gigs in 2009. For those lucky (and cunning) enough to find work, it can mean so much more than a paycheck. "Your child will begin to interact with coworkers, and possibly customers, and as a result, gain knowledge about how the workplace operates," says Beverly F. Slomka, author of Teens and the Job Game (iUniverse). "It's important that kids take their first job seriously and understand that it's a stepping stone to bigger things later on." Anticipating the problems that a kid might run into in a new venture—and taking preventive measures to avoid them—will help your young worker get off on the right foot.
The Problem: New Job Jitters
The beginning can be scary—the pressure to perform can turn a laid-back teen into a ball of nerves.
The signs: Your child is quieter than usual and complains of a stomachache or loss of appetite before her first day.
How to help: Assure your teen that it's normal to feel anxious. Remind her that the biggest challenge is already behind her (getting hired), and that she may make a mistake but it won't be the end of the world. "Nobody expects perfection on the first day, or even the first week," says parent coach Susan Epstein. When your teen messes up, encourage her to admit it immediately and to ask her employer how she can avoid making similar mistakes in the future. Her new boss should admire her honesty and be impressed with her desire for self-improvement. Helping teens practice basic skills—like making eye contact and firming up their handshake—will also give them more confidence from the get-go.
When to get involved: If your teen is still nervous after a few weeks, it may be a sign of a deeper issue, like a lousy manager or overwhelming responsibilities. Talk it out until you uncover the real issue.
The Problem: Immaturity
It's easy for teens to let "little things" like personal hygiene or a bad attitude damage their workplace rep. Teaching them to behave professionally sets an example for life.
The signs: They're dressing sloppily, arriving late to work, asking to leave early and relaying anecdotes about goofing off.
How to help: Reiterate the long-term impact of taking employment seriously: Good behavior now means a strong reference later, which can lead to a better, higher-paying job in the future. "Give them a sense of how important first impressions are," advises Karen Hinds, author of A Teenager's Guide to the Workplace (New Books). "They should dress for the job they want, not the one they have."
When to get involved: Angelica L. Kloos, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at the Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., says that "it is best for teens to experience for themselves the natural consequences of their behaviors," such as answering to a supervisor about why they're late. If your kid is fired as a result, help him process what happened and why, and discuss what he can do in the future to ensure it doesn't happen again. Moreover, resist the urge to give him money while he searches for new work. Warns Dr. Kloos, "If you provide for him what he planned on earning through a job, you may inadvertently take away his motivation to succeed in the workplace." Instead, suggest chores he can do to earn money while hunting for another job. Refusing to pay for extras like a cell phone or the latest video game will also teach him to take that position more seriously.
The Problem: Older Coworkers
As twentysomething workers continue to crowd adolescents out of an ever-tightening market, teens may labor alongside people old enough to smoke, drink, and do plenty of other things that send shivers up your spine.
The signs: Your teen asks to go out frequently after his shift, spends time with people you haven't met, and takes up interests and hobbies you don't approve of.
How to help: Warn your child in advance that he may be exposed to these things but that doesn't mean he has to partake. "Summer jobs can end up making teens feel very lonely, especially if everyone else is over 21 and likes to go out for drinks after work," says Nora E. Coon, author of Teen Dream Jobs (Beyond Words). She suggests making sure your child has at least one free day a week to have fun with friends his own age. Though the pressure to fit in can be overwhelming, remind your kid that he can always rely on school-related excuses like "I need to chip away at my summer reading list" to politely decline an invitation. (This also serves to remind his coworkers just how young he really is.)
When to get involved: When it's obvious your kid has fallen in with a bad older crowd, set a curfew and insist on meeting any colleagues he wants to hang out with. The prospect of introducing them to mom—how humiliating!—may squelch his desire to roll with grown-ups.
The Problem: Unfair Wages
Minimum wage is par for the course in the teen labor market, but parents and teens should be familiar with the rules of their home state.
The signs: Your teen was promised one wage but received another, is being paid off the books, isn't receiving enough in tips to subsidize a sub-minimum-wage income, or seems to be pulling crazy hours with no overtime compensation.
How to help: Outside of taking odd jobs like babysitting or mowing a neighbor's lawn, teens should avoid accepting under-the-table pay. "Any employment opportunity that doesn't follow the law in one area is particularly vulnerable to other workplace abuses," says Coon. When it comes to overtime, the law determines how long a teen can work, especially during the school year; in many cases, hourly workers of any age should be earning one and a half times their regular pay rate for overtime. And teens ages 14 and 15 are not permitted to clock in more than 40 hours during a nonschool week. Kids should also try to stay on top of sub-minimum wage situations like table waiting, which rely heavily on gratuities. "Tips could be pretty hard for a teenager to keep track of," says David Neumark, coauthor of Minimum Wages (The MIT Press). Some states offer a tip credit, which means that tips earned count toward the minimum wage owed; other states, like California, require that an employer pay the full minimum wage, regardless of how much the employee makes in tips. Your teen should know the law for her state, and declare her tips in full. (The IRS could be watching.)
When to get involved: If your kid believes her employer is violating a federal or state law, encourage her to file a complaint through the Department of Labor.
The Problem: Workplace Bullying, Discrimination, or Harassment
Last year the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) took in 99,922 total charges of discrimination. Teens are most likely to encounter it in some form of sexual harassment, but discrimination can manifest itself in other ways too. Whether it's an abusive boss, mean-spirited coworkers, or a jerky customer, Slomka says, "parents need to let teens know that bullying should never be tolerated."
The signs: Your teen is crying a lot, complaining about hostile customers, or panicking when sharing a shift with a particular supervisor or coworker.
How to help: "Although the law doesn't prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe it creates a hostile or offensive work environment," explains Justine Lisser, a senior attorney-adviser at the EEOC. Parents should instruct teens on how to react in these situations: Giggling out of nervousness when a supervisor propositions them, for example, could come off as flirting. Rather, they must be firm, first confronting the offender and, if that fails, moving their complaint up the chain of command (and over to the EEOC, if necessary).
When to get involved: "Teens have to be able to deal with these situations on their own or they will forever be the victim," says Jennie Withers, author of Hey, Get a Job! (Caxton). Parents can accompany their child if they need to report an abusive situation to a regional manager or HR department, but they "should let them do most of the talking," says Withers. If there is still no redress, allow your teen to quit the job and file a formal charge (be aware of the statute of limitations—usually 180 to 300 days).
The Problem: Hazardous or Illegal Working Conditions
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, between 60 and 70 teens die every year from work-related injuries; thousands more end up in the E.R. "It's the employer's responsibility not to ask workers to do illegal or unsafe things," says Carol Runyan, director of the University of North Carolina Injury Prevention Research Center.
The signs: Your child seems stressed or burned-out, spends a lot of time at work unsupervised, or uses dangerous equipment like box crushers or slicers.
How to help: Make sure the employers are following the law, advises Runyan, referring to federal and state child labor rulings that limit how long and how late teens can work, and what types of tasks they may perform. Start by asking your teen if he has received on-the-job safety training, then feel out his day-to-day routine. Teens shouldn't close shops by themselves at night or work alone for any length of time. Lack of proper adult supervision not only can lead to workplace injuries, but may also tempt some teens to misuse company property, invite friends in for "freebies," or even shoplift.
When to get involved: Because teens are trying desperately to fit in at an adult workplace, it's imperative that parents don't attempt to talk to the employer on behalf of their kid. Instead, offer suggestions on what to say and give them permission to leave the job if the situation doesn't improve. "Teens need assurance that they aren't failing or giving up," says Withers. "It's actually the opposite. If they leave a job where they are being taken advantage of, they are demonstrating courage and ensuring their future success and happiness."
Teen Job Websites to Bookmark
The EEOC's teen initiative outlines the types of discrimination teens may encounter on the job, plus provides info on how to file a complaint if they feel their rights have been violated.
Young Workers (dol.gov)
The U.S. Department of Labor's Youth & Labor section is the mother of all resources, with up-to-the-minute details on federal and state child labor laws, wages, work-hour restrictions, and safety requirements for minors.
This DOL subsite puts the rules—how long teens can work, how much they should be paid, and the types of jobs they can do—in plain English for parents, teens, educators, and employers.
Job seekers will find thousands of full-time, part-time, and seasonal teen jobs advertised here, as well as info on youth employment, work permits, and labor laws.
Best Jobs for Summer 2011
—Grocery bagger or cashier
—Health care assistant
—Receptionist or administrative assistant
Originally published in the May 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.