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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sue Lani Madsen: No more newsboys

UPDATED: Sat., June 16, 2018

Sue Lani Madsen (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

No more newsboys. Those intrepid boys (and sometimes girls) who delivered newspapers by bicycle and on foot in the early hours before school have disappeared.

Paper routes used to be the best first job. Kids learned responsibility and customer service working in their own neighborhood, starting as young as 10 years old.

For Kolby Jensen, home delivery manager for The Spokesman-Review, his 40-year career in newspaper logistics started at age 8. “Legally, it was supposed to be 10, but it was Wyoming and nobody seemed to mind,” he said. He kept his route through high school.

Few parents today would be comfortable letting their children roam the pre-dawn streets with news bags over their shoulders. Delivery routes now require a driver’s license, a car and insurance.

Asking about first jobs has been a staple question for Meet the Candidate interviews at SpokaneTalksMedia, a series I started hosting in 2016. State Rep. Marcus Riccelli and congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers have both cited their experience at McDonald’s, where the trademarked corporate motto is “Committed To Being America’s Best First Job.” Like many corporate employers in need of entry-level employees in a tight job market, McDonald’s has launched an educational assistance program for employees willing to work their way out of the minimum-wage pool.

Spokane City Councilman Mike Fagan started washing dishes at age 14 at the then-fashionably-modern Ridpath Hotel. These days, the younger Fagan would be unemployed, and not because the hotel closed. The minimum age to work for the currently fashionable Davenport Hotel Collection is age 18.

While McDonald’s still hires 16- to 18-year-olds, Kevin Hansen, owner of Family Foods in Davenport, explained that he avoids hiring anyone under age 18. Restrictions on time and tasks make scheduling difficult in a small business. Without a training wage to offset rising minimum wages and benefit requirements, it’s hard to justify the extra record keeping and duplicate staffing.

Hansen recently made an exception to his no-one-under-18 policy, bringing on board a 17-year-old on a hunch. He didn’t want to lose out on a good long-term employee by waiting a few months.

“Thank goodness we stuck our neck out on this young man, because he’s a dandy,” he said.

But do a bad job and reputation will haunt you. Kent Adams, a local media producer, recalled his early job as supervisor for a YMCA day camp in the 1960s. A counselor left 10 kids unsupervised and Adams scrambling to find a replacement. Ten years later, the FBI called for a routine background check on the missing-in-action counselor. Adams gave the agent an earful.

There’s less risk to an employer if an applicant has a demonstrated work ethic. Teenagers can legally build a track record in agriculture, working for immediate family under a specific exemption in Washington law. It puts farm kids higher on the hire list.

Retired farmer Keith Klein, of Edwall, was attending a small Christian college in California when he heard a local bank was hiring tellers. He had no relevant experience and a physical disability that appeared to make the job a challenge. They hired him anyway, on the strong reputation of previous students hired from the same college and his farm-raised self-confidence. He succeeded.

Dad’s first job was typical for the 1940s. He was up before 4 a.m. to hop on and off the milk truck making deliveries, with a cold breakfast on the way to school. He likened boot camp to a luxury resort. Not only did he get to sleep in, but there was a hot breakfast every morning.

Asking about first job memories is a great way to connect with people, or to connect with your father on Father’s Day. It doesn’t seem to matter if it was a good, bad or quirky experience. Everyone has a story, and faces light up with the telling.

According to a recent Spokesman-Review report, the U.S. has gone from nearly 72 percent labor force participation for ages 16-19 in July 1978 to 43.2 percent in 2016, and it is expected to drop to 26 percent by 2024. There’s a feeling of empowerment from one’s first adult responsibility, first paycheck. We’re handicapping the next generation by putting up greater barriers to employment.

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