That first job

Our son has his first job; he works at a local restaurant as a food runner, hustling out plates of food from the kitchen to tables all over the restaurant. He’s pretty happy to have this job, for three reasons, I think: He’s making a few bucks; he’s got an interesting little community to hang with each night that he’s working; and he’s treated as an adult the moment he walks in for his shift. Restaurant shirt on, apron tied tight, he’s put right to work and expected to carry out his duties (and others as assigned) right up to the end of his shift.

We feel pretty lucky that he got this job, as there are not as many jobs for teens as there used to be. As the Atlantic reported in June 2017, “employers are more reluctant to hire [teens]. First, the rise of low-skill immigration in the last few decades has created more competition for exactly the sort of jobs that teenagers used to do, like grocery-store cashiers, restaurant servers, and retail salespeople. Second, older Americans stay in the workforce longer than ever, and many of them wind down their careers in office secretary and retail jobs, which used to be the province of 16-year-olds in the summer.”

As the Atlantic reported, in the summer of 1978, 60 percent of teens were working or looking for work; in the summer of 2016, just 35 percent were. Child Trends reported that in 2015 about 18% of high school students had jobs.

More than 40 years ago, my brothers and I worked all through high school. On weekends we caddied at New Haven Country Club, and during my senior year I had a job at a small pool pump manufacturing plant in our town. A few days a week, I’d go in after school, spend my six hour shift testing pool pumps, to make sure they didn’t leak, and then head home for food, homework, and bed.

I didn’t do a lot of deep thinking about my jobs when I was 17 – I didn’t do a lot of deep thinking about much at that age – but as I now reflect on it – with our son juggling work, school, college applications, and social stuff – these first jobs can be really important for a young person. First, there’s the personal independence that comes with work – the chance to make a name for yourself out of the house – and to become (somewhat) financially independent, by making a few bucks. Second, there are those soft skills learned: Showing up to work on time, politely interacting with co-workers and customers, being part of a team, working well under pressure, etc.

A job (at least this kind of job) and school are an interesting pair, serving as different places to practice some of the same skills. You hand in your school work on time, and you get to work on time. You collaborate with classmates on a project, and you do the same with your co-workers during the dinner rush. You learn to work with your teacher, and you learn to work with your boss. As school (I hope) develops in our kids the kind of critical thinking skills that will serve them in a variety of settings, a first job (I hope) sets the table for those future jobs, giving young people a small sense of just what work is. No wonder career and technical education programs that are connected with a work place outside of the school can be so powerful for young people, as they build on – even more acutely and intentionally than for our son – that school/work connection.

I got the above picture here.

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