Teens, jobs and school: the pros and cons

Most teens pick up on the old adage that “money equals power” at a relatively young age. Money equals designer clothes, a car and insurance, and in many cases, a certain amount of freedom. And to get money, many teens get part-time jobs.

While the benefits and/or drawbacks of teens and part-time jobs have been researched, studied, and debated since at least 1979, the verdict on teens, jobs, and effects on schoolwork is still out. According to the US Department of Labor, 50 percent of American teens have informal jobs, such as babysitting or yard work, by age 12. And by age 15, nearly two-thirds of American teens have had some form of employment. And many researchers, including those on government panels like the National Youth Commission, praise part-time work, saying it helps transition from youth to adulthood.

Parents and educators alike have said for decades that part-time jobs teach kids how to be responsible and manage money. But Temple University researcher Laurence Steinberg found that only 11 percent of students report saving most of their money for college, and just three percent contribute to household living expenses. “Most of teens’ money goes toward clothing, cars, entertainment, and in some cases drugs and alcohol,” according to the results of a study published in the Harvard Education Letter in 1998.

Steinberg says, “Students who work longer hours report lower school participation, lower school performance, greater psychological distress, higher drug and alcohol use, higher crime rates, and greater autonomy from parental control.” A 1997 study by David Stern, director of the National Research Center for Vocational Education at the University of California, Berkeley, demonstrates Steinberg’s point. In research conducted over 20 years, students who worked more than 15 hours a week had lower grades, did less homework, had higher dropout rates, and were less likely to go to college than students who worked less than 15 hours a week.

But Jerald Bachman of the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future Project cautions against jumping to cause-and-effect conclusions. “I would say that most of the problems that correlate with working long hours have a more fundamental cause,” he says. “That can contribute to the spiral, but I think the spiral is in place by the time they choose to work long hours.”

Although the drawbacks of a busy part-time job are many, so are the benefits. A teen’s job can teach job skills that school doesn’t teach, and it can instill in the teen new confidence, a sense of responsibility, and independence. Earning money will allow your teen to buy things and manage money. An after-school job can also provide adult supervision, especially if you work more hours than a typical school day. And the right job can provide you with networking opportunities and set your child on a rewarding career for a lifetime.

But before your child gets a job, there are a few things you need to know. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, “Children under the age of 14 may not be employed or work in any occupation, except children employed on farms or in domestic service in private homes.” Children under the age of 14 may also work on farms, be golf caddies, newspaper boys, or youth performers in the entertainment industry. But special permissions may be required.

Also, under many state labor laws, 14 and 15 year olds may not work more than four hours per day during the school year and not before 7 am or after 7 pm (During the summer, the amount hours of work per day can be increased to eight.) Children under the age of 16 are prohibited, by Pennsylvania law, for example, from working in bowling alleys (unless they are cafeteria attendants, scorekeepers, or employees of the control table), heavy work in buildings, work on roads, anywhere. liquor is sold or dispensed, manufacturing, on scaffolding or stairs and window cleaning.

For 16- and 17-year-olds, some state laws say that “minors must not work before 6 am or after midnight on school days and 1 am on Fridays and Saturdays.” Also, no more than eight hours per day and 28 hours per school week. (During the summer, the only restrictions for 16- and 17-year-olds are that they cannot work more than eight hours per day or 44 hours per week.) Young adults under the age of 18 are prohibited from working in pool halls; do electrical work; operate elevators; perform crane and lifting operations; digging; operate woodworking, bakery mixing, cleaning, oiling, or die-cutting machinery; roofing; welding; and doing demolitions.

Getting a job for your teen is a big step on the road to adulthood. Be sure to discuss the pros and cons with him or her. You may also want to take a job on a trial basis, such as “you can work x number of hours a week this qualifying period and then we’ll decide if she can keep working, based on her qualifications.” Maintaining good grades, continuing extracurricular activities, and maintaining a social life will be important to your child’s health and psychological development. Also, budget with your teen, set limits on spending, and enforce a percentage of paycheck in savings policy. Good money management skills, learned when you are young, will last a lifetime. Part-time jobs can be a wonderful experience, with proper supervision and parental guidance.

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