A summer job used to be a rite of passage for teens. Now, not so much. Has pre-college prep trumped real-life lessons?

By Dan Tynan
Photo by Stocksy

My first summer job was at an ice cream store. Each night I’d come home with elbows sore from continual scooping and arms sticky with marshmallow topping, all for the glory of earning $1.65 an hour. (Yes, I am a dinosaur.)

When my kids were in high school, they had part-time jobs as well. My son delivered Chinese food. My daughter worked at a pizza joint. It was a natural extension of how they’d been raised. When the kids wanted money, they worked for it—whether by vacuuming the family room or giving the dog a bath. I once paid my son 5 cents a word to finish a short story he had started as a seventh-grade assignment. (Surprise: He used the money to buy an Xbox.) They even learned how to negotiate with their parents for higher wages—another necessary life skill.

Yet for many teens, summer jobs are rapidly becoming a relic of a bygone era, like landline phones or face-to-face conversations. Every new survey tells the same story: In 2000, more than half of U.S. teenagers got a summer job. In 2017, that number was down to roughly a third. And the outlook for this summer isn’t any more promising. Why aren’t more kids working during their school break? It’s complicated.

School Is Not Out for Summer

One answer is literally academic. In 2016, 42% of high school students attended summer school, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That’s four times the number who attended in 1985. But back then, summer school was mainly for students to make up classes they’d flunked (remember?). Now it’s for pumping up the prerequisites for college. 

Unpaid internships are another drain on the teen labor pool. A 2014 survey by Millennial Branding found that 55% of high schoolers feel pressured by their parents (yes, they mean us) to get professional experience before applying to college. And some students (or, ahem, their parents) have decided that building houses for poor families in Guatemala will look better on a college application than say, slinging burgers at Mickey D’s. 

Revelations last spring about rich parents charged with making bribes to gain college admission for their kids may make parents of truly hardworking students more desperate to pad their résumés. But interning or volunteering only because it looks good almost always backfires­: Kids miss a chance to learn what they truly like, and that’s what colleges want to know,­ ­­says Christine K. VanDeVelde, who interviewed more than 200 college admissions deans as the co-author of College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step. What’s more, “admissions officers aren’t stupid,” she says. “They can see when there’s a calculated effort to craft the résumé.” 

What colleges care about most are the grades kids got and the courses they took, VanDeVelde adds. What your kid does during the summer is way down the list. According to a 2018 State of College Admission report, work ranks 14th on a list of 16 factors influencing whether a teen is accepted to the college of their choice. (Grades are first and extracurricular activities are 10th.) 

Trying to engineer your child into the perfect college applicant isn’t going to work, agrees Kerr Ramsay, associate vice president for admissions at High Point University in North Carolina. But no one denies that work experience in itself has character-shaping benefits. “The best job is one the student is excited about and from which they experience growth and development,” Ramsay says. “But each student is different. For some students, a job at Shake Shack can be that job, depending on how they approach it and what they want to do.”

Summertime Blues

Another fact is that many teens want jobs but simply can’t get them. This is especially true for students of color and those from disadvantaged economic backgrounds, according to Drexel University’s an­nual summer jobs survey. Technology is at least partly to blame. The simpler the job, the more likely it’s now being done by a machine instead of a person, says Paul Harrington, professor of labor markets and policy at Drexel. Harrington says his first job as a kid was pumping gas; now virtually everyone fills their own tank. Similar automation is happening in retail and food service—industries likely to hire teens for low-skill jobs. 

More people age 55 and above are also back in the workforce, and given a choice between a green teen and an experienced elder, most employers will choose the latter, Harrington says. The exception, he notes, is students from career and technical education schools. “Employers love them,” he says. “Because work is such a core element of the school culture, these students tend to be more reliable and have better social skills. Employers go, ‘Wow, these kids actually show up.’ ”

Take This Job and Love It

Encouraging kids to apply for summer work is about more than getting them out of your hair (and teaching them to quit treating you like their personal ATM). But how do you pry teens away from their screens and get them to start looking for work? The answer depends a lot on your own financial situation, says Ron Lieber, author of  The Opposite of  Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money.

In families that need another income to keep the lights on, there isn’t much of a conversation to be had, Lieber says: We expect our kids to find the highest-paying work they possibly can. Those of us who may need our kids’ help footing the bill for college also need to sit them down and have a frank discussion about finances, as early as possible. “If you haven’t had that conversation with a college-bound teenager by the time they’ve started high school, you’re doing it wrong,” he says.

Also, some parents want their teens to find a job because they think it will be good for them. In that case, we need to emphasize that, like school, work can be an important learning experience. “You need to tell them there’s value in learning how to show up on time, work in the service of someone other than yourself, and deal with customers, some of whom may not treat you very well,” Lieber says. “You need to talk about how great it feels to be able to make money on your own

and decide how you want to spend it.”

But parental assistance should only go so far, says Alison Doyle, a job search expert for The Balance and CEO of Career Tool Belt. For example, letting friends know your kids are looking for work, helping them proof their résumés and driving them to interviews is perfectly fine. Arranging a cushy job with your best friend’s firm? That probably isn’t going to teach them much. (See Doyle’s “3 Job Hunting Tips for Teens,” below). 

Ultimately, doing anything—including scooping ice cream—has payoffs. Drexel’s studies show that teens who work outside the home are far more likely to go to college, obtain a degree and be earning a higher salary 10 years after graduation. 

“The key is not what you do with your summer; it’s what you take away from what you do over the summer,” says Deena Maerowitz, a partner at The Bertram Group, an educational consulting firm. “If you can do something you love, that’s great,” says Maerowitz, who had summer jobs from age 13 on. “But sometimes doing something you hate can be just as valuable, because it helps you figure out what you really do enjoy,” she says. “It’s all about knowing who you are.”

3 Job Hunting Tips for Teens

Every parent wants to help (or nudge) their kids to get a job, but it’s up to the kids to make it happen. 

1. Find out who’s hiring.

Have your kids ask their high school guidance counselor if employers have posted openings with their school. Sites such as snagajob.com and indeed.com list hourly jobs by location. And it never hurts to stop by a store or restaurant and speak to the manager.

2. Build that résumé.

If your teens have never held a job, they should list their education, availability, character references, volunteer activities and work done for others (like dog walking). Even if they end up filling out a templated application, they’ll have the info they need in one place. 

3. Ace the interview.

Prep your teens to answer questions about why they want the job and what they have to offer. And make sure they wear a nice outfit. (You might have to explain that this means something their grandmother would approve of.) 

TIP: If your kids can’t find an official job, the old standbys of babysitting, tutoring and mowing lawns are perfectly legit.