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Teenagers delay getting jobs

Fri., Aug. 10, 2007

Kathy Belisle wants her 16-year-old and 17-year-old to develop a work ethic and earn their own spending money. But when she looked at the activities penciled into the family’s calendar, Belisle knew that neither her daughter nor son could apply for jobs this summer.

In late June, she and her husband took the kids to the Midwest for four weeks, visiting Belisle’s parents in rural Kansas. When the family returned to Spokane, 16-year-old Jessica had driver’s ed classes and volleyball camp. Seventeen-year-old Andrew is headed to Greece and Italy later this month with his senior class.

“I’ve known people who insist on their kids working, and their lives revolve around that,” Belisle said. She and her husband, Ron, chose instead to have their kids focus on sports, travel and family time.

Many parents appear to be thinking like the Belisles.

Teenagers’ participation in the work force has been steadily dropping since 1978, when nearly half of all 16- and 17-year-olds had jobs, or were actively looking for work, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This year, 30 percent of teens are working or seeking jobs.

Teens’ crowded schedules appear to be contributing to the decline. With so many activities to choose from, some parents are putting a lower priority on their kids landing that minimum-wage job.

“People are in many ways wealthier than they ever have been, so the impetus and need to have teenagers working is less than it was 20 years ago,” said Barry Asin of Staffing Industry Analyst, a firm in Los Altos, Calif., that tracks labor market trends. “More teens are looking for things that will help them get into college as opposed to a summer job.”

The trend of fewer teens working concerns Andrew Sum, who heads the Center for Labor Market Studies at Boston’s Northeastern University. Sum’s spent 30 years studying teen work trends. His research shows strong correlations between youth employment and later job market success.

Those first work experiences impart valuable skills, including the importance of showing up on time, obeying supervisors and learning how to interact with customers, he said.

“We’re doing ourselves a great disfavor by not having kids participate in the work force,” Sum said.

Local companies that rely on young workers are starting to feel the impact of fewer teens applying for jobs.

Silverwood Theme Park north of Coeur d’Alene hires about 800 seasonal workers each year, primarily high school and college students. Over the past three years, competition for those workers has increased, said Nancy DiGiammarco, Silverwood’s marketing director.

She attributes the competition in part to an expanding economy and more companies seeking entry-level workers. But some parents also tell her their kids aren’t working – they’re too busy.

This fall, Silverwood will survey high school students about their attitudes toward work. The survey, conducted on Palm Pilots, will also try to glean their parents’ thoughts about teens and jobs.

If parents are putting a high priority on summer educational activities, Silverwood may rethink how it advertises job openings, DiGiammarco said. The theme park might tout the skills learned from being a lifeguard or waiting on customers in a snack bar. Silverwood might also experiment with shorter, more flexible work commitments, she said.

Silverwood is also evaluating its wage structure. This year, 16-year-old workers received a 75 cent raise to start at $7 per hour.

Wages may be part of the reason that fewer teens are working, said Patrick Jones, executive director of the Institute for Public Policy and Economic Analysis at Eastern Washington University. In North Idaho, for instance, starting wages have been relatively flat over the past couple of years, which may be one reason that teens and their parents are choosing other activities over work, he said.

Kathy and Ron Belisle are both teachers. The couple gives precedence to activities that will help their kids develop their long-term potential, Kathy Belisle said. Her son, Andrew, is interested in languages and theater. Last summer, he took German classes at Spokane Falls Community College and spent three weeks as a teacher’s assistant at Lake City Playhouse’s summer workshop for kids.

This summer, it was important for Andrew to visit his grandparents, because he’s headed to Germany in January for 12 month as a foreign exchange student, his mom said. Volleyball camp, meanwhile, was a priority for athletic Jessica. Their older brother, who just finished his freshman year at Montana State University, is working construction this summer.

Though they don’t have full-time summer jobs, Andrew and Jessica earn money from baby-sitting, tutoring, yardwork and other odd jobs. Their parents pick up the cost of necessities, but the siblings are expected to pay for their own entertainment.

“If they want to go to a movie, they pay for that,” Kathy Belisle said. “If they need a new pair of jeans, we pay for that.”

Her kids still learn the value of money without sacrificing the activities important to their personal development, she said.

Valla Melvin took a different approach with her son this summer. In July, she and her former husband gave 17-year-old Jonathan an ultimatum. No job, no car privileges.

Melvin spent the summers during her teen years working as a waitress in a pizza parlor, detasseling field corn and cleaning the bathrooms in her dad’s contractor’s shop. She counts the experiences as a valuable part of growing up and wanted the same for her son.

“I had to learn to balance my time between my work and my friends,” Melvin said. “It helped me establish goals. I knew I was going to have to make money if I wanted things.”

With Jonathan on the brink of adulthood – he’ll be a senior at Medical Lake High School this fall – Melvin and her former husband thought it was time for him to shoulder more financial responsibility.

“We had to explain to him that when he turns 18, he’ll be paying for his own car insurance,” she said. His ‘95 Honda Accord, which he purchased with the help of his parents, “is going to need new tires, and there will be other costs incurred down the road,” Melvin said.

Jonathan Melvin met his parent’s two-week deadline for getting a job. He’s working at Burger King, earning $7.93 per hour.

He’ll have to learn how to juggle work with his other interests, which include soccer and singing in a garage band, his mom said.

“He knows that academics come first, then sports, then his job,” Melvin said.

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