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Is teen employment making a permanent comeback? What teens gain from work

Three Utah teens who started their first job in the last six months share why they work and what they’re learning on the job

SHARE Is teen employment making a permanent comeback? What teens gain from work
Baden Wood hopes his job as a lifeguard at Roy Aquatic Center will help him as he goes to college and then pursues a career in law enforcement.

Baden Wood works as a lifeguard at Roy Aquatic Center on Wednesday, July 13, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

New 2021 statistics could show the beginning of an upward trend in summer employment levels from previous historic lows, according to Pew Research Center.

The share of teens who have jobs has been sliding downward every decade since 1989 and hit 24.7% in 2009, the lowest rate in recent U.S. history. In the summer of 2021, teen rates rose to 30.3%, which is the highest rate since the Great Recession.  

For years, strong emphasis has been placed on teens going to college. For the post-millennial generations, compared to the millennial generation, college is being viewed more as a necessity than an add-on by youth.

Three teenagers from that post-millennial generation — Allie Rich, Alivia Robles and Baden Wood — all said that education was more important to them than a summer job. They want to go to college and getting in isn’t a matter of simply applying. Colleges are asking teens to check boxes like community service, extracurricular activities and high academic achievement — which all compete for a student’s limited time.

Surveys of American youth by Pew Research Center agree. The percentage of 18- to 20-year-olds who enrolled in college after high school in 1986 was 44%, By 2017, that percentage had jumped to 59%.

Deseret News asked Rich, Robles and Wood why they wanted to get summer jobs in 2022.

Testing the waters

Since he was about 13, Baden Wood, now 15, has developed a love for law enforcement. Diving into the field, he’s talked with officers “both old and young” for advice, taken classes in school and soaked up any other information he could get on investigative skills. He hopes eventually to work in one of Utah’s sheriffs’ offices.

The youngest of five siblings, he said his family was worried about this career choice at first —  especially his mother — but they have since come to support him.

“At first I think it was a bit scary because you think of law enforcement and the time that we live in, and you just think it’s a scary career choice to want,” Baden said. “But over time they’ve grown to really like and support me in it. They always are going to have my back.”

He first learned of the open lifeguard position at Roy Aquatic Center from a flier his English teacher gave him to bring home. Baden thought it would be a great step toward his hoped-for career.

“I know that lifeguarding and law enforcement are pretty different, but they are the same general concept of ensuring the safety of people,” Baden said. “I figured it was another step that I should take in order to make my final goal of becoming a law enforcement officer.”

Baden Wood works as a lifeguard at Roy Aquatic Center on Wednesday, July 13, 2022. He decided his plans to go to college and pursue a career in law enforcement would only be helped by working as a lifeguard.

Baden Wood works as a lifeguard at Roy Aquatic Center on Wednesday, July 13, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

His mother, Suzanne Wood, was less keen than Baden’s teacher on having him start a job right away.

“I was a bit apprehensive because, first of all, that’s a big responsibility,” Wood said. She thought Baden had one more year before he entered the workforce.

Baden told his mother that the required certifications he would earn during lifeguard training would benefit him in future applications for other jobs during the school year, and to the academy when he graduated. 

It took some convincing, but Baden’s perseverance and ambition won out. His mother gave her permission and in May he started working as a lifeguard.

“He seemed to really click and enjoy it,” Wood said. “It’s been a really good experience and he’s learned a lot.”

Initially, it wasn’t easy, she said. Baden’s had to jump in the pool a few times to help swimmers who got in trouble. She admires that he “kept trying and was able to accomplish the things he needed to do.” His responsibilities have grown along with his skills, she said.

Responsibility is one of four key skills that Laurie Kopp Weingarten said teenagers gain from working. Weingarten is a certified college education planner and founder of a college planning business called One-Stop College Counseling.  

She told Deseret News that she recommends getting a job to those she mentors because it helps teenagers develop skills not only for college applications but for their future careers. Working helps teens become responsible, understand the value of money, learn time management and see the real world.

Baden said he’s experienced all of that on the job.

Managing stress

One of the largest motivations for teens to get jobs is the promise of earning their own money. That was true for Alivia Robles.

Alivia started her first job this summer as a 15-year-old employee of Ohana, a shaved ice shack. 

Even though there was some opportunity to make money at home through extra jobs around the house, said her mom, Jessica Robles, Alivia wanted a job to save money for a car.

“Doing jobs around the house just wasn’t cutting it,” Alivia said.

After she earned a couple of paychecks, Alivia learned that saving the money would be harder than just earning it. Planning and effort were required to split her earnings to do the things she wanted to do now and still save enough for a future purchase.

“The first couple paychecks I got, I just spent it,” Alivia said. “Then I kind of realized that I can’t do that anymore. I’ve definitely had to learn how to save money, but still keep a little spending money, too.”

Weingarten said that “getting out of their bubble and seeing the real world” is an impactful part of getting a job for teens.

Alivia found that getting hands-on experience in a relatively low-stakes environment has taught her skills while expanding her comfort zone. She said she has also learned coping skills to calm herself down when she feels stressed at work. Since she works by herself, it can feel overwhelming when she’s too busy.

“I’ve definitely had to learn how to handle that stress,” Alivia said. 

To cope, she refocuses on the task at hand and reassures herself that it’s OK if she doesn’t get the order done instantly. By doing so, she has developed problem-solving and time-management skills, as well.

Her mother said that the self-reliance Alivia has gained from working has taught her to “perform under pressure“ and allowed her to “solve problems alone,” all of which will help her as she is out in the world.

Standing firm

“I thought it’s always something I’ve had to do, so it wasn’t like I wouldn’t ever get a job,” Allie Rich, 16, said of her decision to join those teens who work during the summer. ”Obviously you need a job to make money.”

She hopes to save up to pay for drivers education on her own and also buy some things for fun that she’s never had, like “expensive perfume.”

Allie is the youngest of four and said that she’s grown up watching her parents and siblings work. Her mother, Angie Rich, has earned several certifications that allowed her to run her own salon and several businesses within the wedding industry, and was self-employed for much of her children’s lives. She was the one who encouraged Allie to get a job.

“I just needed a push to actually make an effort to apply for jobs,” Allie said.

“It’s very convenient because now I don’t have to ask my mom for that much money now,” she joked.

She started working at the North Shore Aquatic Center on Labor Day weekend in June —with several different responsibilities including working in the front office, attending to the register and enforcing slide and park rules.

She said one of the most valuable skills she is learning is how to stand her ground.

“You always deal with people, but when you get in a work environment, you really see how people can be,” she said. “You have to be pushed around a bit to know your self-worth. I don’t take it to heart anymore; if someone would try to bend the rules at our facility, I wouldn’t let them.”

Allie said she’s more confident in her ability to enforce rules that will keep customers safe “instead of getting pushed around.”

Her mom sees the difference that work makes for teens.

“They need a lot of self-confidence when people are depending on them,” Rich said. “It helps them develop and feel their work is valued.”

“For a first job experience, it’s been very good,” Allie said. “I’ve been very fortunate.”

Parental nudges

These parents and other adults agree that a teen’s first job is a great step into their future.

In all three instances, the parents of Baden, Alivia and Allie were essential in encouraging their kids as they tackle their first jobs. It is true that Baden had to convince his mother at first, but she fully came around and helped him through the difficult days that happen when a teen first starts working.

At the end of the day, the pool’s gates close and the snowie shack has to be locked up, but teens take home the experiences. Every day offers a new one and yields different lessons that parents can help their kids digest.

What teens learn on the job sticks with them. It’s shaping them, Weingarten said. And that news might be spreading to their friends.