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Should My Teen Get a Job?

Educators and state officials weigh in on whether teenagers should be working

Published on: November 01, 2009

When it comes to working during the school year, 17-year-old Kisa Nishimoto has found the solution for successfully juggling her job, studies, sports, extracurricular activities and a volunteer spot advising the Edmonds City Council: getting out of bed at 4 a.m.

Fortunately, the Edmonds-Woodway High School senior's work schedule as a barista is somewhat flexible. She rarely works more than 15 hours a week and often it's closer to eight hours weekly. "Have I missed an assignment or lacked sleep? Of course," she says. "I just try to balance it all. Sleep sometimes becomes the least of my priorities. There are just not enough hours in the day."

About 80 percent of all kids work at some point, often seasonally.

And while Nishimoto's schedule would be difficult for many adults to juggle, some experts say that having a job helps prepare teenagers for the real world and, in many cases, can help them evolve into better students.

Margie Rosback, school to work coordinator at Renton High School, says she believes that students who work about 10 to 15 hours a week are better prepared in academic and career arenas.

"What we're finding is that teens who work within that range actually do better in school from being in the adult environment and learning how to be on time, and have better organizational skills," she says. "When they start working more than 15 hours a week, we often see that their school work suffers. It's just not good for the teens."

Pam Dykstra, a career instructor at the Clover Park School District's alternative high school, cautions that parents and teachers need to keep a close eye on teens who work. "If they can't get to class or aren't completing their school work, I tell them to talk to their boss about cutting back on their hours," she says.

Teens attending the alternative school sometimes must have jobs, because they are parents or supporting their family. Dykstra says she's particularly mindful of the massive responsibility these teens already have on their shoulders.

"Many of them have a variance [from state laws governing high school workers] to work more than 20 hours a week," she says. "I know teens need income to be able to support their family, but they still need to meet the school requirements. I try to help them find that balance."

Balance is the main goal when it comes to teen workers, and it's important for both teens and parents to know the laws that govern the workplace, says Mary Miller of the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries.

"About 80 percent of all kids work at some point, often seasonally," she says. "Parents need to know what their child's employer is responsible for when it comes to teen workers."

Employers must have a minor work permit endorsement on their master business application with the state and it must be renewed annually. They must also fill out the parent/school authorization form with a list of work duties and work hours. A parent and school counselor must both sign the work forms prior to the minor starting work.

Once the teen starts their job, Miller says, parents should monitor their teen for signs of exhaustion, depression or anything else out of the ordinary. "Parents need to know their own child," she says.

In many cases, school-sponsored work programs provide staff to monitor teen workers. Dykstra and Rosback, for example, spend much of their time visiting students at their places of employment.

Some of the most popular jobs among teens continue to follow trends of years past. Fast food and restaurant work seems to fit the bill for many high school students, although some opt for working at the grocery store or movie theater. Rosback says she recommends teens interested in the health care industry should look for jobs at retirement homes.

"If teens identify what kind of job they want to pursue after high school or college, we can use the career and technical classes to fit in with their after-school job," she says. "We can make it all work together."

Ultimately, open communication between parents, teens and school officials helps make most job experiences positive.

Michele Ehl, Edmonds mother of two teens, found that allowing her children to have a job has helped them become responsible students and athletes. "They understand the importance of being on time, doing your best work and handling difficult situations," Ehl says.

Ehl's daughter Kathlyn, 16, has a job at Funtasia, a mini-amusement park, and Alison, 14, is employed as a soccer referee. Both jobs are fairly flexible, and allow the two girls appropriate time to handle a rigorous academic schedule and continue to enjoy school athletics.

Ehl says she encourages parents to let go a little when their teen begins looking for a job. Allowing them to manage their own work and school schedules helps them prepare for adulthood, she adds.

9 points to consider if your teen gets a job 

Teens typically...

  1. Explore, experiment and take risks, but lack a sense of vulnerability. Sometimes they try to do "a little more" to prove themselves.
  2. Desire acceptance from adults and peers, and are susceptible to peer pressure, yet want to assert their independence.
  3. May perform tasks outside their usual work assignments for which they may not have received training.
  4. Lack experience and physical and emotional maturity needed for certain tasks.
  5. Lack knowledge about work requirements and safe operating procedures, and aren't aware of which work tasks are prohibited by child labor laws.
  6. Experience rapid growth of organ and musculoskeletal systems which may make them more likely to be harmed by exposure to hazardous substances or unsafe work activities.
  7. Often have limited self-confidence and communication skills to effectively question or convey concerns to their supervisors.
  8. Often lack assertiveness and may be afraid to ask questions or speak up because they are concerned about looking stupid or losing their job.
  9. Need more sleep than adults at a time when sleep habits and patterns may not be good.

Originally published in the November 2006 print edition of ParentMap.

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