Experts / Opinion

Prepare Teens for Work

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Dr. Paul Harrington is a professor and director of the Center for Labor Markets and Policy at Drexel University. Photo credit: Tommy Leonardi.

As the school year ends, teens will be flocking to apply for summer jobs at local stores and restaurants. Most of them will be turned away.

Overlooked in many discussions about the Great Recession is the plummeting number of employed teens. In Philadelphia, just 20 percent of all teenagers were employed last year.

A recent study we conducted at Drexel University’s Center for Labor Markets and Policy and Boston’s Commonwealth Corp. uncovered some of the underlying factors behind this alarming trend, as well as some practical solutions for addressing this challenge.

The benefits of teen employment extend far beyond pocket money for teenagers. It is an important predictor of future employment and earnings, and is a key component of the experience upon which young people make life-defining decisions on the pathway to adulthood.

Moreover, previous work experience is one of the primary filters used by employers to decide whom to hire. Like schooling, work experience can help develop key abilities that employers value. Reductions in employment, coupled with a rise in idleness among teens, spell trouble for the productive potential of the nation’s labor supply.

In our recent study on hiring decisions for entry-level positions, we found that employers in Boston and Philadelphia have become more reluctant to hire teens. One reason is that older workers and young college graduates are available for these jobs. But the reluctance largely stems from negative behavioral traits of teenage workers.

Employers noted that teens

  • are more likely to call out from work without notice.
  • are less likely to have self-control, and the ability to keep their emotions in check and maintain their composure with customers.
  • resist efforts by employers to correct them, partly because they don’t fully understand the connection between their performance and the economic viability of the firm that employs them.
  • are more likely to quit a job without sufficient notice, raising employer costs associated with high turnover and rearranging work schedules.

Many of the institutions and organizations that serve teens are largely disconnected from the labor market, and therefore unable to effectively coach teens and prepare them to succeed on the job. For instance, many employers claim that the first time most teens face any consequences for poor attendance is in the workplace. Showing up at work is fundamental to success, yet schools and workforce programs too often fail to develop this most basic of traits. Both parents and schools must reinforce dependability and self-discipline, and students need to understand that there are consequences for not showing up or for losing control.

Reinforcing behaviors like attendance and punctuality early can improve school and work outcomes for teenagers. High schools and workforce trainers must engage in developing character traits that are the building blocks to academic and career success.

Paul E. Harrington is a professor and director of the Center for Labor Markets and Policy at Drexel University. Nancy L. Snyder is president of Commonwealth Corp. in Boston.


This opinion piece previously ran in The Philadelphia Inquirer on May 10. To read it, click here.

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