Teens in the Workforce

Regional ReviewQuarter 2, 2001
by Alison Morantz

Note: The names of the teens cited in this article have been changed to protect their privacy.

Emily Payet, an outgoing high school sophomore, spends about fifteen hours each weekend serving customers from behind the counter of a large deli and bakery in East Boston. Many of her friends from school work there, too. On some Saturdays, she comes in as early as 5:30 a.m. and spends several hours helping to prepare the food. After the store opens, she stands behind the counter selling deli items and baked goods. Hired at $6 an hour, she asked her boss for a raise nine months later and was delighted when he offered her $7.50.

Emily considers herself "lucky to have the job," but says it also has some major downsides. "For one thing, we don't get any breaks, not even fifteen minutes. Just standing on my feet for eight or sometimes ten hours, there are times when my feet kill. . . . Also, my back hurts now because I do a man's job sometimes, like lifting four gallons of milk in crates and heavy boxes." Nevertheless, she feels she is learning important job skills. "I connect with the public a lot, and sometimes they give you an attitude. As much as you want to give them an attitude back, you can't. Here is what my boss says: 'The customer is always right.'"

Work is a pervasive facet of teenage life. Roughly one-third of 16- and 17-year-olds are employed in any given week during the school year, with about 80 percent holding a job at some point during their junior or senior years. For many teens and their parents, the benefits of working are self-evident. Part-time jobs are one of the surest ways to teach kids important job skills; learning early how to balance school and work may help kids balance competing commitments later on. The time teens spend on the job is generally time they don't spend on criminal activity or dangerous forms of recreation. And, as Emily Payet points out, holding a job gives teens spending money over which they have complete control. "It just gets tiring after a while to ask your parents for money all the time. . . . It's better having your own money. That way you can do what you want with it."

Some teens even discover lifelong careers. "My board of directors is composed of 41 industry leaders," notes Peter Christie, Executive Vice President and C.E.O. of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. "Many started out in entry-level positions in the fast-food industry. . . . I myself started as a dishwasher in a diner, and then went back twenty years later and bought that diner." Some unusual jobs may even give students entrée into careers they would not have considered otherwise. Irene Brand was thinking about a career in journalism before she landed a summer job working with animals at the New England Aquarium. "I never thought about doing this kind of work," said the 16-year-old from Dorchester, Massachusetts. "I might want to continue doing it after I finish school."

On the other hand, working in junior high and high school can carry special risks. Youth and inexperience tend to make teenagers especially vulnerable to workplace injuries and other safety hazards. Coworkers may "educate" teens about alcohol, drugs, and other high-risk activities; extra spending money may encourage them further. And students worn out from too many hours on the job may have trouble keeping up with homework and focusing on classroom instruction. This raises concern that, despite the benefits, teens could even wind up worse off in the long run, with lower-paying jobs and less opportunity than if they had concentrated time and attention on school, athletics, or other after-school activities.

Teen Workers: A Snapshot

As anyone who has bought groceries, ordered fast food, or shopped at a retail store can attest, teens are an important source of labor in many sectors of the U.S. economy. Although well over half of teens report having held some type of job by age 14, the majority performed only "freelance" jobs like babysitting and lawn mowing. Starting at age 15, however, an increasing number of teens take on jobs as regular employees. During any given school week between 1996 and 1998, almost 3 million 15- to 17-year- olds had jobs, while about 4 million teens are employed during the summer months.

The number of hours that teens work also rises with age, although precise estimates vary. According to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, 12 percent of ninth-graders work 15 hours or more per week. This proportion jumps to 42 percent in the eleventh grade. By senior year, a whopping 56 percent of all students are juggling schoolwork with a 15-hour-plus workweek, and almost a quarter are working 30 hours or more. Minority and low-income teens are less likely to be employed than white teens and those from middle- and high-income families. But employed African American and Hispanic teens are likely to work longer hours.

Such part-time employment is not a new phenomenon, particularly for teenage boys. More than a quarter of 16- and 17-year-old males who attended school in 1947 were also members of the labor force, note psychology professors Ellen Greenberger and Laurence Steinberg. Today about 60 percent of all working teens work in retail stores and restaurants. Eating and drinking establishments make up the lion's share of employment, followed by grocery and department stores. Just under one-quarter are employed in the service sector, including entertainment, recreation, domestic labor, and health care. The remainder are distributed among agriculture, manufacturing, construction, and other industries. Minority teens are more likely than whites to hold service sector jobs; teens from low-income families are disproportionately likely to work in agriculture, manufacturing, and construction.

The typical working teen does not earn vast sums. More than half earned under $2,000 per year in 1997-98. Almost one-third earned between $2,000 and $5,000 per year, and only a small group (under 10 percent) earned more than $5,000. Like Emily Payet, the majority cite the desire for spending money as their primary reason for working-not the need to support themselves or supplement family income. In a study conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, more than three-fourths of teens said "spending money" was the chief motivation. In contrast, 26 percent indicated that they worked "to support themselves," and 19 percent said they contributed part of their earnings to family expenses. (That most working teens come from middle-class homes could partly explain such findings.) As Irene Brand, the teen employed at the New England Aquarium noted, "If I am working for the money, I'll spend it the way I want." Most of teens' earnings appear to go to their own expenses, such as clothing and entertainment, according to a recent study published by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Safety on the job

If nothing else, child labor laws are designed to protect teens from physical harm by limiting where and when they are allowed to work. For this reason, one might expect that a teen's chance of getting injured on the job would be lower than that of an adult. Surprisingly, however, most studies come to the opposite conclusion. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has calculated that roughly 200,000 adolescents are injured on the job each year, a rate for 15- to 17-year-olds of five injuries per 100 full-time-equivalent workers; by comparison, the rate for workers over 16 was just under three. And the fatality rate among employed 16- to 17-year-olds was only slightly less than that of 20- to 24-year-olds (3.5 compared to 3.9 per 100,000 workers) even though child labor laws seek to ban minors from the most life-threatening jobs.

Working teens' self-reports seem to reinforce these statistics. Between 17 and 50 percent of working teens described having been injured on the job, according to a recent Institute of Medicine report, with between 7 and 16 percent reporting injuries serious enough to require medical attention. As the study's authors concluded, "Typical 'teen jobs' cannot be assumed to be safe. . . . [Various] factors may place younger workers at greater risk than adults confronted with similar hazards."

Some industries appear to be more dangerous than others. A cluster of recent studies has found that manufacturing and construction firms have unusually high rates of nonfatal injuries. Construction is especially dangerous, causing 14 percent of occupational fatalities among youths under 18 years of age, even though it employs less than 3 percent of working adolescents. The states of Washington and Connecticut have identified public-sector jobs (including summer jobs programs) as being especially risky for adolescent workers. And the Massachusetts Department of Public Health also recently declared trucking, warehousing, and retail bakeries to be high-injury industries.

Agriculture, which gets "special treatment" under federal and most state laws, is far and away the most life-threatening sector. Although just 8 percent of employed adolescents aged 15 to 17 years work on farms, agriculture accounts for 40 percent of all work-related deaths for children under 17.

The hazards seem to be greatest for older teens and for boys. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds have higher rates of injury than younger workers. This may be linked to the fact that teens under 16 are subject to working hours restrictions, and some states go even further than the federal laws to protect young teenagers from hazardous work. But it could also be that older teens have an inflated sense of their own abilities, or that employers give them more hazardous tasks.

Adolescent boys are injured at higher rates than their female peers, with males accounting for 90 percent of teen deaths on the job. Although it is true that boys are more likely to be working in the most hazardous jobs, they also seem to have higher injury rates even within occupations.

Problem behaviors

According to conventional wisdom, jobs smooth the transition to adulthood by teaching teenagers responsibility, maturity, and professionalism. So one might expect adolescents who work to be generally more disciplined and well behaved than their nonworking peers. Surprisingly, research does not tend to support this conclusion.

A number of studies have found that high school students with jobs-especially boys who work long hours-are more likely to get into various forms of trouble than their nonworking peers. For example, a 1993 study by University of Michigan psychologists Jerald Bachman and John Schulenberg found that boys working more than 30 hours a week were more likely than those working fewer hours (or not at all) to smoke, use drugs or alcohol, and get into trouble with the police, although a later study suggested that this was only true for those already "at risk" for delinquency. Half a dozen other studies published in the 1990s found that working more than 20 hours a week is associated with a greater likelihood of using cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine, regardless of income level, race, and prior substance abuse.

There is no clear consensus on how to interpret these findings. On the one hand, it is possible that employment has a real detrimental effect on teens' behavior. Working may encourage youthful misconduct by increasing levels of day-to-day stress, exposing teens to risky behavior, and giving them an inflated sense of their own maturity. But it is also possible that work itself is not the root cause. It could be that teens who regularly use drugs and alcohol decide to work so that they can better afford their habits, or that teenagers with rebellious inclinations are also attracted to working because it gives them greater independence from parental authority.

Educational outcomes

Given the importance of education to a teenager's future, the job most important to them may ultimately not be the one that earns them an immediate paycheck, but the one that earns them a high school diploma and the chance to attend college. Do students who work in high school get better or worse grades? Are they more or less likely than otherwise similar students to graduate from high school and enroll in college?

It is easy to see why employment might lower students' grades. Almost by definition, students who work have less time left to sleep and do homework. For Emily Payet, juggling her job at the deli-bakery with her schoolwork has been an ongoing struggle. "Basically I have no free time and I never really get to sleep. I'm always tired in the morning-all of the time." Amy Kinney, a high school math teacher in an affluent Boston suburb, said that she and her colleagues often agonize over how to deal with students who show up at school exhausted and unprepared after working long hours. "It is a source of frustration for teachers. . . knowing that school comes second to a lot of kids. . . . [Do you] wake up the kid who you know didn't get home until midnight, and then tried to do his homework [and] is functioning on 4 or 5 hours of sleep?"

Yet there are reasons to doubt whether time spent at work really displaces homework or sleep for the typical student. Although it is hard to get accurate estimates, available studies find that many teens spend less than 10 hours per week on homework-so it is hardly inevitable that work time will crowd out study time. Other studies have found that neither teens' employment status nor the number of hours they work is associated with the number of hours they spend on homework. Perhaps this is because teachers adjust homework assignments to accommodate students' work schedules, or because students themselves consider their work commitments when choosing their courses. Or it might be because students who are less interested and successful in school choose to work.

The impact on grades is also hard to pin down. Some studies have found negative effects of employment (or working hours) on grades; others find no significant effect. Interestingly, the impact of working may depend partly on the particular circumstances of the employment experience. For example, employment is positively correlated with grades for teens who report saving their earnings for college. It also appears that making the skills taught in the classroom directly applicable to the workplace can enhance academic achievement, although the evidence is somewhat conflicting. Kinney's experience in the classroom seems to mirror the equivocal nature of such research findings. "I've seen it go both ways," she said. "I've seen a kid who was really not motivated in school get a job and [then] see the importance of school [and] their grades improve. But I've also seen kids who were doing fine in school and then got a job, and their grades fell off the end of the earth. I think the second case is more common. But I think they both happen."

The impact of teen employment on the likelihood of graduating from high school or college seems to be more consistent. The key factor seems to be the number of hours worked. Working long hours is associated with lower educational attainment, although which way the causation runs is hard to say. By contrast, low-intensity work (generally defined as less than 20 hours per week) over a sustained period is associated with an increase in educational attainment, especially among boys. Observes Kinney, "Working maybe 20 hours a week is O.K., but anything over 20, I think is too much. . . . They are sleeping in class, and they fall behind academically because their time is swallowed up at work and they can't study and do homework."

Long-term career success

Gaining early work experience may give students a leg up in the job market once they reach adulthood. Working teens may figure out earlier than their nonworking peers which career would best match their interests and abilities. And they may make professional contacts they can draw on later in life. The experience that teens acquire on the job-such as the ability to convey a sense of professionalism through dress and speech-may make them more attractive to future employers.

But even without such direct benefits, holding a job may enhance long-term economic success. Notes Elaine Augot, who spent eleven years teaching English as a Second Language to high school students in Massachusetts, "Having a job can be positive if it gives kids a vision of what life is going to be like afterward. If you don't like what you are doing because you are working in a boring job, then you may decide that education is the way to go."

A substantial body of research conducted over the last twenty years tends to corroborate this insight. Paid work during high school is generally associated with a greater chance of finding a job after graduation, longer spells of employment, and higher income. Most studies have focused on the first year or two after high school graduation, although a few have documented positive impacts on wages and occupational status that persist up to a decade after graduation.

But a more recent study casts some doubt on the conventional interpretation of these findings. UCLA Professor of Economics V. Joseph Hotz and coauthors tried to control for the possibility that a teen's decision about whether to work while in school is itself affected by other unobserved characteristics, such as academic ability or family background, that will also influence their wages later in life. After controlling for such factors, they found that the positive effects of high school employment on adult wages diminished markedly and were no longer statistically significant. In short, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that kids who work in high school are more successful in their adult careers. But it may be premature to conclude that the beneficial effect of the work itself is the driving mechanism.

School-to-work and beyond

For many students, class work and paid work seem worlds apart. As Irene Brand observed, "Sometimes in class I'm wondering, How does what I'm learning relate to the job I will do after I graduate? How does it fit in? Do I really need this? They should start making school more career-oriented, and gear some of the classes more toward what each student wants to do."

It is precisely the desire to link academic learning with individual career goals that has inspired a cluster of educational reforms in the last decade known collectively as the "school-to-work" or "school-to-career" movement. According to its adherents, high school curricula should connect rigorous academic learning with on-the-job experiences and offer teenagers high-quality career exploration and counseling to help smooth the transition from school to career. This idea has been particularly attractive in urban districts and other places where school reform has received significant attention. In 1994, Congress passed the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, whose mandate was to improve the transition from school to work for all American youth by providing local communities with federal grants to help integrate school-based and work-based learning.

In the past decade, many school districts throughout New England have developed special schools or programs that reflect the school-to-career philosophy. Boston has the oldest and, in some ways, most developed initiatives; the entire school district is involved and the program has a dedicated staff that takes the lead in organizing employers. Pro Tech, one of its longest running programs, was launched in 1991 in the hospital industry and later expanded to include financial services, business services, and communications and utilities.

In Rhode Island, a number of city high schools have also partnered with local businesses. At Providence Place Academy, tagged the "mall school," the curriculum emphasizes retail skills, and students are required to complete internships at local stores such as CVS, Filene's, and Godiva Chocolatier. At Portsmouth's Newport Area Career and Technical Center, students in the marine occupations program have worked with boat builders on the shop floor of Vanguard Sailboats and at the International Yacht Restoration School in Newport.

Nowhere has the school-to-career ethos led to more sweeping reform than at Providence's Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center. "The Met," which accepts just 200 students, has almost completely dispensed with the trappings of a traditional high school education. Although students are expected to take at least one course at a local college campus before graduating, the high school itself administers no exams and teaches no classes in the formal sense. Instead, faculty "advisors" help place each student in a two-day-a-week internship reflecting his or her "passions and interests," devise an academic program to complement each student's internship experience, and offer individualized mentoring and instruction.

The task of evaluating school-to-career programs has been complicated by the movement's loose definitional boundaries. "School-to-work" is itself an umbrella term that encompasses such diverse programs as job shadowing (in which students shadow workers at a work site), mentoring (in which students are matched with individual mentors pursuing their chosen career), cooperative education (combining academic and vocational studies with a job in a related field), career major programs (offering a defined sequence of courses to further a particular occupational goal), internships, and apprenticeships.

Partly because of the movement's recent vintage, no consensus has yet emerged as to whether the programs have lived up to their promise. In a study of a California high school composed of small, career-related learning communities, USC doctoral candidate Jeffrey Hittenberger found that a group of 48 sophomores who were randomly selected to participate in a global business academy had better attendance and grades than peers at the same school. However, in a larger study of New York City academic career magnet programs, Robert Crain and coauthors found that randomly selected program participants had lower high school graduation rates than those who were not selected-perhaps because career programs were more academically demanding-although participants were less likely to smoke or drink, and more likely to earn college credits.

The most recent assessment, a review of school-to-work programs by Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, finds some successes, but also room for improvement. The study's authors conclude that school-to-work programs serve a broad cross-section of students-performing at both high and low levels-thereby serving as a vehicle for detracking. Participants tend to take difficult courses, and the programs can improve attendance, grades, and graduation rates. However, the authors note the lack of evidence on whether programs raise standardized test scores, and the limited evidence on whether they have a positive impact on college enrollment, graduation, and longer-term labor market success. Full implementation of the program model which requires coordinated curriculum between employers and schools may help. Evidence from high-performing Pro Tech programs, such as Madison Park Utilities and Communications, suggests that better implementation might improve high school grades and attendance.

Federal grant-giving legislation and aid-roughly $2 billion over the past seven years-will sunset this fall, so the school-to-career movement may lose strength in the upcoming decade. Increased emphasis on tests as a requirement for high school graduation may also create challenges, since it has so far proved difficult to demonstrate that school-to-work programs raise academic achievement as measured by standardized test scores.

Whatever its success as a method of educational reform, school-to-career programs have encouraged schools across the country to recognize the centrality of paid work in teenagers' lives and begin exploring synergies between workplace experiences and classroom learning. The research is unequivocal on one point: Part-time work is already a fact of life for most American teenagers. The continuing challenge is to use the policy instruments at our disposal-child labor laws, educational reforms, and career counseling programs-to minimize its short-term risks and enhance its long-term benefits.


Regulating Teen Labor
Just a century ago, the United States had no federal law in place that restricted or controlled child labor. Although some states took the lead and passed their own laws as early as the nineteenth century, it was not until 1938 that Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which restricted the ages, hours, and working conditions of school-age workers. The standards embodied in the FLSA are still with us today, but its provisions have evolved over the past sixty years.

An important characteristic of the FSLA is its limited coverage. The Act applies only to workplaces that are engaged in interstate commerce and have annual gross revenue of at least $500,000. Child actors, migrant farm workers, newspaper deliverers, and home wreath makers are entirely exempt. Children working for their parents are also exempt as long as they are not working in occupations deemed especially hazardous, such as manufacturing and mining. The agricultural sector is subject to especially lenient regulation. At age 14, child farm workers can choose their own hours, as long as they don't work while school is in session. Children even younger than 14 can perform hazardous tasks on a farm for their parents, and when they turn 16 years old, they can perform hazardous farm jobs for any employer.

For teens who don't fall under these exceptions, the FLSA regulates two aspects of employment: working hours and hazardous occupations. On school days, working teens 15 years old and under can work up to three hours a day and 18 hours a week. On non-school days, teens 15 years and under can work up to eight hours a day and 40 hours a week. Teens over 15 are not subject to any federal hours restrictions.

Restrictions on hazardous occupations apply to all teens under 18 years in nonagricultural occupations. The current list of banned jobs includes mining, working with explosives, driving vehicles with passengers, roofing, wrecking and demolition, meat packing, and slaughtering. Some argue that the list is incomplete and outdated, omitting occupations such as those that involve exposure to carcinogens and biohazards.

Federal regulations set minimum standards but these can also be overlaid by state laws. Some states have tightened hours restrictions, expanded the list of hazardous occupations, and plugged the gaps in FLSA coverage. Others have chosen standards that are more lax than the federal ones (which means that employers under FLSA are bound by federal law). This two-tiered regulatory structure has created wide disparities in the legal regulation of working teens. So have differences in enforcement. Some states allocate considerable funds; others do not. Some hire enforcement officials who specialize in child labor laws; others leave the task to the officials who enforce every other state labor law.

Evidence suggests that violations are common. In 1998, Douglas Kruse and Douglas Mahony estimated that during an average week about 148,000 minors were working in violation of the law. They also found that youths in banned occupations were paid $1.38 less per hour than adults in the same job, saving employers about $155 million per year.

Emily Payet's employer (see main story) appears to be violating several federal and Massachusetts laws: All workers (not just teens) who work more than six hours in a day are entitled to a thirty-minute meal break, and no worker under 18 years of age is allowed to start work until 6:00 a.m. or to work more than nine hours per day. Whether her employer is deliberately flouting the law is not clear. What is clear is that teens like Emily and her coworkers are often too worried about the reaction of their boss to even raise the issue.

How one employer complies
Some employers have responded to child labor laws by revising their business and personnel practices. Market Basket, a supermarket chain based in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, has taken several such measures, according to Jay Rainville, supervisor of store operations. Because a typical delicatessen contains so much age-restricted machinery (such as meat slicers and mechanical trash compactors), the company has decided not to allow employees under 18 to work in the deli. "Our in-house computer keeps track according to the employee's date of birth," Rainville explained, "so if a manager tries to punch someone in to work in the deli who is under 18, the computer automatically kicks them out."

To ensure that teenagers do not work more than the legally permissible number of hours, Market Basket does not schedule its 14- and 15-year-old employees for more than 14 hours a week. "Our policy is more restrictive than the labor laws themselves," said Rainville. "That way, if someone happens to go over their schedule here or there, we are still within the state guidelines. It's kind of a cushion."


Alison Morantz holds a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University and a J.D. from Yale Law School. She got her first job at age 14 in Swenson's as an ice cream scooper. She was fired six weeks later.

Where Do Teens Work
Percent of Employed Teens, 15 to 17 years of age, 1996-98

Industry
Occupation
M A L E
Eating & drinking places
31
Stock handlers & baggers
13
Grocery Stores
14
Cooks
12
Misc. entertainment & recreation services
5
Cashiers
10
Agricultural production, livestock
4
Waiters & waitresses' assistants
5
Construction
4
Misc. food prep. occupations
5
Department stores
3
Farm workers
5
Landscape & horticultural services
2
Janitors & cleaners
4
Newspaper publishing & printing
2
Food counter & related occupations
4
Agricultural production, crops
2
Groundskeepers & gardeners, except farm
3
Gasoline service stations
1

Sales workers, other

2
F E M A L E
Eating & drinking places
33

Cashiers

24
Grocery stores
10
Food counter & related occupations
7
Private households
6
Waiters & waitresses
6
Department stores
4
Sales workers, other
5

Misc. entertainment & recreation services

4
Child care workers, private household
5
Stores, apparel & accessory except shoe
4
Cooks
4
Drug stores
2
Stock handlers & baggers
3
Nursing & personal care facilities
2
Sales workers, apparel
3
Retail bakeries
2
Supervisors, of food prep. & service
3
Child day care services
1
Waiters & waitresses' assistants
3
Note: Figures are for school months, January to May and September to December Source: Report on the Youth Labor Force, U.S. Department of Labor, November 2000

 

How Much Do Teens Work?
Average hours at work per week for teens, 15 to 17 years of age, 1996-98
 
SCHOOL
MONTHS
SUMMER
MONTHS
All teens, 15 to 17 years
16.5
23.0
Age 15
11.6
18.9
Age 16
15.7
22.4
Age 17
18.2
24.9
Male
17.2
24.2
Female
15.8
21.6
White
16.4
23.0
Black
18.1
22.8
Hispanic origin
21.0
25.1
Note: Figures are for school months, January to May and September to December
Source: Report on the Youth Labor Force, U.S. Department of Labor, November 2000

 

Stay Connected

contacts email alert Twitter RSS podcasts careers faqs videos
Regional Review Links