Is Your Teen Ready for a Job?

Parents of teens commiserate over many things, but if there is one universal they can all relate to, it is the phrase “I need money for….”  The possibilities for the second half of the sentence are endless: new sneakers, a ticket for the school play, a team jacket, pizza, the movies, a friend’s birthday gift, a MetroCard, an outfit for the freshman formal.

So, when your high-schooler brings up getting a job, it may be all you can do to resist shouting “Yesssss!” But your jubilation should be tempered with a bit of caution.

Four Questions to Assess Job Readiness

Teens may all need money, but not all of them are actually ready to handle a job. Whether seeking gainful employment was her idea or yours, here’s what to consider before you sign the working papers.

Can he manage his time pretty well? “One of the most fundamental skill sets for job readiness is time management and punctuality ability,” affirms Alexandra Hamlet, Psy.D., at the Child Mind Institute in Manhattan. “Teens who can show respect for their co-workers’ and boss’ time are on their way to becoming successful in their first job.” On the other hand, if your kid is the one forever missing the school bus, waiting on applying for that first job might be wise.

How are her communication skills? “Communication skills development is key for many areas of life, and especially in the workforce,” Dr. Hamlet notes. If your teen seems comfortable holding conversations with adults, and is able to express his thoughts clearly, those are good signs he’s ready to respond to that help-wanted post. Kids who are afraid to ask questions (and tend to pretend they know more than they do to avoid looking “stupid”) would likely do well to work on breaking those habits before taking a job.

Does he seem to have a solid sense of what’s appropriate in different situations? Professionalism is another key readiness factor that can be expressed in several ways: showing up in appropriate attire, coming prepared with any materials that may be needed for the workday, and being able to maintain a respectful, friendly demeanor (even when he’s in a bad mood), Dr. Hamlet says. When deciding if your child has the ability to present himself appropriately, look to what happens at school. Does he wear clean, weather-appropriate clothes, or is he a wrinkled mess? Is he usually prepared with his school work, remembering to turn in his assignments? Does he follow the school rules?

Is she a team player? Most jobs these days, for students or grown-ups, require at least some teamwork. “Teaching your teen a teamwork ethic could be helpful,” Dr. Hamlet says. “This would include formation of overall leadership abilities, learning to be helpful and collaborative with others, and valuing contributions from members of the team.” If your child seems to work well during group projects at school, or has successfully been playing a team sport, those are good signs.

Even if your teen seems to be coming up a bit short in one or two of these areas, it doesn’t necessarily mean she or he shouldn’t apply for a job. All of these job-readiness criteria are moderated by the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for planning complex cognitive behavior, decision making and impulse control, and moderating social behavior, which isn’t fully mature until the early 20s. “Waiting for them to be one-hundred percent in all of those areas would probably require you to wait until they graduate from college to allow them to have their first job!” Dr. Hamlet notes. “Working toward growth in each of these areas is more realistic.”

Know the Labor Laws

Your kid wants a job. You think he’s ready to handle it. The next step is applying to openings, and it’s important to educate yourself about child labor laws as you begin that process. Make sure you understand the rules that apply to your child, because not every employer, unfortunately, can be trusted to adhere to them. Christine Koehler’s daughter, Mari, was only 15 when she was hired as a hostess for a busy pub-style restaurant near the family’s Long Beach home. “She loved it at first, but the owner kept giving her more and more hours,” Koehler recalls. “Before long, I was picking her up at [one in the morning] on Saturday nights. The owner didn’t really seem to care she was a young girl working nights with essentially the bar crowd.” 

New York state has one of the strictest child labor laws in the country,” says Wendy Gildin, an attorney in Garden City specializing in issues surrounding students. Kids younger than 14 can’t work, period. Fourteen and 15-year-olds can’t work more than 3 hours on a school day, or more than 18 hours in any given week. There are also laws around how late at night minors of different ages can work on school vs. non-school days, with some exceptions for babysitters, Gilden notes.

New York state requires all 14- to 17-year-olds to file working papers in order to be eligible for hire. These are available through your child’s school, most likely in the guidance office. “Your child will have to have had a doctor’s exam in the last year, though a school physical in connection with participation in a sport will qualify,” Gildin adds.

Our very first job is one we all remember, even if it wasn’t the perfect experience. Talk with your teen, not only about what he needs money for and how much, but what the world of work entails and how it can be part of his healthy march toward adulthood. Prepare him well, and his will be a life-long memory, too.


The Inside Track

We caught up with Paul Satriano, veteran guidance counselor at West Babylon High School, where he stands ready to help any of the school’s more than 1,500 students land the right part-time job for them.

What sorts of businesses tend to hire high school students, especially younger ones? Most students find work in retail businesses. Whether that’s a family-owned ice cream shop or a large grocery store chain, these tend to be the most popular jobs high-school students secure.

If a student came to you looking for advice about finding a first job, what might you say? I would ask the student to consider the impact this might have on their school work—and what their parents think of the idea. I know that some students may need to work in order to pay for their phone, car insurance, or spending money, but I want them to be aware of some of the issues that come along with an after-school job, like balancing work and school and simply finding the time in their day to get everything done. I would also speak with them about how to approach potential employers and what they could expect from the interview process.

If it came down to a part-time job or participating in an extracurricular, how does the decision potentially affect a college application? This is a tough question….it depends. Typically, when a student is the member of an organization, say, school band, throughout all four years in high school, it looks terrific on a college application. It really can display a students' dedication to school and speaks to their overall growth. That being said, students are increasingly being pulled in all different directions and are faced with decisions like this more and more. Therefore, colleges often tell me holding a part-time job is just as important as dedicating time to a club or other extracurricular activity. Colleges see value in a student who is learning the importance of work and the responsibility involved with keeping to a work schedule while also learning to balance their academics. So, in the end, it will be an individual decision the student, with the help of their parents, will need to review carefully.