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Balancing act: BizTown teaches fifth graders work-life lessons

It's not always easy being a grown-up, with all of the work and bills and responsibility.

Those of us who have grown up (or at least, grown older) already know this. But it's nice when our children get a little of that perspective, too.

I wrote a few months ago about my oldest daughter's learning experiences when she and the other ninth-graders at her school participated in "Reality Town." This week, I'm happy to report that at least some of our young people are getting a better understanding of "real life" at an even earlier age.

My youngest daughter had that opportunity last week when she and the other fifth-graders from her school participated in BizTown, courtesy of Junior Achievement of Utah.

According to the organization's website, my youngest was one of 10,000 fifth- and eighth-grade students who will make their way to Junior Achievement City, located in downtown Salt Lake's Discovery Gateway Children's Museum, during the 2012-13 school year.

Working at storefronts sponsored by local businesses, the website said, "students bring this 10,000-square-foot learning facility to life as they operate banks, manage restaurants, vote for JA City Mayor, develop working budgets and manage their business and personal finances."

But work-life isn't about just one day in the office, and my daughter said she started preparing months before last week's big event.

At the beginning of the school year, the fifth-graders started learning how to fill out a checkbook and manage money. Then they looked over available jobs at JA City and had to apply and interview for their top three choices.

My daughter's top choice was sales manager for JA Restaurant, because she likes working with food and helping people. She was thrilled when she landed that position.

"I felt really, really happy, because it made me feel like I was good for the job and that the teachers thought so, too," she said.

She was giddy with excitement and had trouble sleeping the night before her visit to JA City, and she said the experience was everything she hoped it would be.

"First we went into this huge-normous elevator that's as big as our kitchen," she said. "When the doors opened, we went over the ... bridge that 'turns us into adults.' Then we had a city meeting and the lady told us where all of our jobs were and all of the businesses were and stuff like that, and which banks each of the businesses would be going to."

The businesses needed to pay off their loans by the end of the day, so students had to be careful with their finances. They also each received BizTown money as salary for their jobs, using it to pay insurance premiums, save at banks, donate to charity and spend for real snacks or other items at the various stores.

My daughter said she started her day as sales manager by purchasing supplies for the restaurant. Then it was time to get to work.

"The first customer came right when we started," she said. "First of all, I couldn't figure out how to open the cash register, so I had to put the money in a drawer until one of the (adult) volunteers could help. ... I had to fill in for two people who couldn't come, the beverage manager and food manager, so I had to do those jobs in addition to sales manager."

Haven't we all had that kind of experience in the workplace, filling in for someone who couldn't make it to the office on a particular day?

My daughter seemed to thrive despite the pressure, though. She said she had a great time greeting people, running the cash register, clearing tables and otherwise managing the restaurant. As a result of her efforts, she was named "Citizen of the Day," and she was proud that she was able to work with classmates to help the restaurant earn the designation of business of the day.

"My favorite part of BizTown was walking over the bridge and getting the feeling that you're starting something really new, and it made you feel happy that you were there finally and all of the training paid off," she said. "The training might be boring, but it all paid off at BizTown."

I was impressed by some of her insights into the working world that came as a result of her day at JA City, as well as some of the quotes my wife gathered while serving as an adult volunteer at the JATV station.

For example, one student told her, "It looks really cool to be in the grown-up world, but it's a lot of responsibility."

Another said, "Being an adult is fun if you get all your work done, but people keep rushing you."

Still others said they didn't like billing people or handling paperwork.

"Being the boss is awesome, and it's also really hard," another student told my wife. "Everybody wants to talk to you, and there's always something you haven't done yet."

Isn't that the truth?

Perhaps my favorite nugget of wisdom came from my daughter, as it included some good work-life balance insight.

"I can imagine how hard it would be to go to work and then get back home and start doing all the chores, like helping kids with homework, doing some laundry, making dinner, and then getting to bed really late and knowing that you'd have to get up and do that routine all over again," she said.

To that I can only say, yes, sweetheart, it is sometimes difficult. But when I look at my "Citizen of the Day," I know it's completely worth the effort.

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