Hi ho, Hi ho! It’s off to Work Teens Go!

Working is often a significant milestone, a source of pride, and a lucrative experience for teens. For three years I worked for an organization that employed groups of youth, ages 14-21, in what was often their first job. When asked what employment meant to them, teens shared that it felt like their first taste of freedom, but also a giant step into the world of adult responsibility. This paradox suggests just how important and challenging those first forays into employment can be for young person.

What can parents do to help their teen decide whether this is the right step for them and, if so, how to take that step successfully?

You can begin the process of helping your teen contemplate whether to seek their first job by beginning with some important considerations:

  1. Can your teen legally have a job?
    When you and your teen are ready for that first step, it’s important to first investigate the employment laws in your state. There are typically legal restrictions for the employment of youth under age eighteen related to time and safety.  For instance, in Wisconsin, youth under age 18 can only work certain types of jobs. Youth under age 16 can only work limited hours during the day and the week. In Wisconsin you can find this information through the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development website.

  2. What are your teen’s reasons for wanting or needing a job?
    There are a multitude of reasons why teens are interested in getting a job beyond their obvious interest in money, such as…

    • Gaining experience or build their resume
    • Paying for for recreation, hobbies and other person interests
    • Contributing financial support to the family
    • Achieving or preparing for financial independence
    • Doing something meaningful with their time

    These reasons may impact the kind of work your teen will seek. If they are looking to build up a resume, they may be looking for something that is career relevant; this may be more like an internship or a volunteer opportunity. On the other hand, someone who is looking to provide financial support for parents or siblings may want to find something more immediate and well-paying.

How will a job affect other aspects of your teen’s life?

There are many benefits to having a job. Jobs can build character and skills. They can teach about rules and authority. They provide opportunities to meet new people and gain new perspectives. However, employment can also have drawbacks. Disadvantages include the potential for undermining a teen’s connection to school, interfering with sleep, or disrupting opportunities for homework. This doesn’t mean balancing a job and school is impossible but that careful consideration must be paid to how much your teen works. The key appears to be the number of hours teens work per week, particularly on school days. One study showed that working more than 20 hours per week in high school is associated with decreased school engagement and increased problem behavior.

However, another study showed that college completion rates were still high among those who worked 15 hours or less per week as high school seniors. Parents do need to take into account the age of their teen and the number of hours per week they will be working or the disadvantages may outweigh the benefits of employment. If you do not think that this is the right time for your teen to start working or you are concerned about how employment may affect your teen, there are avenues other than employment that can provide some of the same benefits.  For example, a new activity or sport is an excellent way to meet new people. Leadership and other skill building can be gained through volunteer activities, extracurricular activities or the addition of increased responsibility around the house.

If you decide that the time is right for your teen to become employed, you can play an important role in guiding your teen toward landing their first job. You can also have strong influence on ensuring it is a positive experience by helping them adjust to their new job and making it a part of their regular routine. Here are some suggestions for how to do that:


1. Help your teen find the “Right” first job

  • Consider your teen’s interests and long-term goals. Does your teen like plants, children, cooking or animals? It may be possible for him or her to find a job that would advance some of those interests.
  • Help your teen assess their skills. Does he or she work better alone or in groups?   Do they have a talent working with computers?
  • Encourage your teen to investigate any specific requirements for the job in which are interested. For example, lifeguarding requires certification. Infant CPR is a very marketable skill for babysitters.
  • Network! Ask other employed teens, other parents, friends, guidance counselors or teachers, neighbors or faith community members about leads to possible jobs.


2.  Help your teen think about “Transferable Skills” throughout the application process

Teens often don’t realize that never having a job before does not mean that they don’t have job skills. Help teens think creatively about their school, church, athletic and club experiences and how they translate into marketable skills. Which activities show leadership? Dependability? Organization? Responsibility?


3.  Help your teen learn job seeking skills, proper work attire, interview and work behaviors

Below are some examples of issues that are important for teens to consider regarding how they communicate and present themselves:

  • Teens would never think of not wearing the proper uniform to play on a sports team. Wearing appropriate attire for job seeking and day-to-day employment is equally important.
  • Teens should create a professional e-mail address specifically for job seeking so that employers get the message that they are serious about their job search. (eparrott would have served me much better than sn0boardchic87)|
  • Once on the job it is essentially for young people to stay focused on their work while they are present and to communicate with a boss in a timely fashion about sickness or other conflicts, though the process will depend on the employer. Some employers require phone calls while others find texting acceptable.


4. Help your teen decide what they will do with the money they earn.

  • Take the time to go to the bank or credit union with your teen and make sure that he or she understands how bank accounts, deposits, withdrawals, overdraft fees, and other money management processes work. For example, the teens I worked with often cashed their checks at the grocery store, not realizing they were being charged $2 or more to receive their cash. They used this method because bank hours weren’t always convenient for them and they feared the hefty fee that came with over-drafting an account. Similarly, many teens do not yet know about taxes or what to do on the W-4 form. Use this opportunity to work together with them so that they have this skill when they become financially independent.
  • Finally, help your teen to create a budget. Assist your teen to choose what the priorities for their money should be.  How much will go in savings for long-term goals? How much should be used for short-term goals? How much can be used immediately? Research shows that it is important for youth to develop long-term saving habits. Allowing young people to treat too much of their earnings as “spending money” may run the risk of “premature affluence” – youth developing discretionary spending habits they cannot sustain in college or as new full-time workforce employees. A teen’s first job, and the money it affords, is a ripe opportunity for parents to encourage good habits for their offspring in the future.


What was your “first job” experience like? What were some of the things you know now that you wish you had known then? What advice do you have for other parents of newly employed teens?


Article Written by Emily Parrott

Emily ParrottEmily is a graduate student in Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Prior to graduate school, she worked as program coordinator for a leadership program, which employed teenagers to develop their own vision for social change and host events to promote that vision. In 2012, her teens helped her perform her first spoken word piece proving that employers can also learn from the teens they employ.