Building a Future Workforce, or Why Teens Need Summer Jobs

A close friend of my wife invited us to a celebration of her daughter’s high school graduation.

Jenna’s a great kid who did very well in school and was involved in several extra-curricular activities. But at 18, she’s never had a real job. She applied at several boutiques in the mall but never made it to the interview round, so she’s never actually punched a clock.

Her mother told me that “Jenna’s too sharp to flip burgers.” So instead of working in a ‘menial job,’ her parents will provide her with a car to drive and make sure she has some spending money for shopping, concerts, and the like. Jenna will, in turn, spend some of her summer days volunteering at the local animal shelter.

This fall, Jenna, and tens of thousands just like her, will enter their first year in college having never held a real job.

And that’s a crime, because every teen needs to know what it is to look for and to have a real job.Teen girl car hop

A “real ” job

A real job would be one where Jenna might have to answer to a demanding boss, trade her own personal fashion tastes for an unflattering company uniform, and forgo some of the social and recreational activities that conflict with her work schedule.

In a real job, Jenna would be asked to perform routine tasks she’d see as boring, challenging, and maybe even ‘gross’ – and she’d be expected to perform each and every one to the very best of her ability or face the consequences.

Having a real job would push Jenna beyond her comfort zone, and in exchange, she’d receive a paycheck made out in her name. Those dollars wouldn’t be any different than the ones her parents give her, they would just feel different.

Don’t get me wrong. Jenna should also spend hours volunteering to make her community a better place. And she should also pitch in and do her share of chores around her parent’s house. If time allows, Jenna could also attend a volleyball camp and raft down the Colorado river with her friends.

But any or all of these things should be done in addition to Jenna having a real summer job, — not as a substitute for one.

Preparation for a real job

There is nothing that prepares a young person for the world of work (something they will be a part of for the next 50 years) like working a real job.

  • Only by having a real job will they discover the power and significance of the words punctual, responsible, initiative, professional appearance, respect, and customer service.
  • Only by having a real job will they learn how to work with people they don’t like to accomplish tasks they don’t want to do in a shorter period of time than they never thought they could do them.
  • And only by working for a real employer will they discover that excuses, even really good ones, are unacceptable. The only thing that determines their worth to their employers is their performance.

Our future is at stake

According the the U.S. Bureau of Labor, back in 1989, 56 percent of all teenagers (age 16-19) actively participated in the workforce. Sadly, according their revised report of 2012, that percentage has dropped to just under 33 percent. That means that in the last 25 years, we’ve gone from a country where more than half of all teens had jobs to one where now less than a third of all teens are actively participating in the workforce. And the number drops even lower (only 26 percent) for teens in urban areas.

Is it any wonder the majority of all employers have publicly declared the new, emerging generation as woefully unprepared for the workplace?

While it would be easy to fault the recession for this alarming decline, it’s important to consider the millions of “Jennas” out there whose parents are not insisting that their kids find summer jobs. When parents provide their kids with all the discretionary spending money they want, they remove the incentive for them to work.

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Ultimately, the kid loses. The employer loses. America loses.

A “no excuses” call to action

Although the jobs available to teens aren’t as plentiful as they were prior to 2008, don’t be fooled into believing that your kid can’t find a summer job. There are plenty of burgers to flip, hotel rooms to clean, and tickets to take at the Tilt-O-Whirl.

These may not be the kind of dream jobs that your kid wants – or the kind of jobs you feel they are entitled to, but the experience will prove invaluable to them. And it will be even more significant if they have to spend several days beating the street, filling out applications, and going through dozens of interviews just to get hired for that ‘menial’ job.

Take it from a guy who’s worked in the trenches with thousands of employers across all industries; no matter how impressive the sheepskin is that your college graduate carries with them into their first full time position, they are going to struggle in their transition from school-to-career if they don’t also have some real job experience behind them.

So please, parents, don’t impede the growth and development of your teen’s work ethic and unintentionally block their path to success.

Get ‘em off the couch and make them pay for their own transportation, their own smart phones, and their own concert tickets.

Make it your job this summer to ensure they get one.

No excuses.

This was originally published on Eric Chester’s Reviving Work Ethic blog. His new book is Reviving Work Ethic: A Leader’s Guide to Ending Entitlement and Restoring Pride in the Emerging Workforce. For copies, visit

Eric Chester is a leading voice in the global dialogue on employee engagement, and building a world-class workplace culture. He's an in-the-trenches researcher on the topic of the millennial mindset, and the dynamics of attracting, managing, motivating and retaining top talent. Chester is a Hall-of-Fame keynote speaker and the author of 4 leadership books including his newly released Amazon #1 Bestseller On Fire at Work: How Great Companies Ignite Passion in their People without Burning Them Out.  Learn more at and follow him at @eric_chester


8 Comments on “Building a Future Workforce, or Why Teens Need Summer Jobs

  1. Eric, I couldn’t agree more. When I was sixteen my parents learned of a job opportunity cleaning houses for senior citizens (our church had gotten some grant money), and they told me. “It’s time for you to get a job.” And I said “Nah, I’m good, thanks.” And they said, “No, you aren’t. You’re getting a job.” And guess what? A job that was supposed to be limited to 10 hours a week for six weeks turned into 10 hours a week for 12 weeks, because the other kids couldn’t stick it out! And (to your point) I learned this valuable lesson at the age of 16–when you’re willing to do work that other’s aren’t, it can be to your advantage. I met some nice people, and I regularly had money in my pocket. Thank you Mom and Dad!

    I have three sons. One didn’t go to college and has been working since high school graduation. Another is nine (for now I’m leaving him alone). But my middle son, a college student, has worked since he was eighteen, the year before he entered college. He took a break during his Freshman year. No problem. Go ahead and adjust to college. But he worked the summer after, and as he was entering his Sophomore year I told him, either you get a job, or I’m cutting off your allowance. He found a job. (OK. I’m not as tough as I’d like–I still gave him allowance.) He’s also working this summer, as a food runner at a local country club, and we’re both happy. He gets fed (something that frankly I can’t do regularly enough to satisfy him) and he gets a paycheck (and yes, his allowance).

    1. Thanks for sharing your family story, Crystal. I like how you’ve been firm with your kids the same way your parents were firm with you. Someday, they’ll appreciate the stance you took just like you appreciate your parents.

  2. Eric, as a young french HR student at La Sorbonne, I could’nt agree more. To pay for your own stuff is what allow you to have your feet firmly on the ground and gave you the sense of reality and even more, it teaches you the value of money and how to budget.
    I’d say it’s sometimes even better if you have to pay for your own education because you will be way more commited to your success, what do you think ? (Of course I think of a french education, i-e way less expensive, at least for the first years).

    1. Godefroy – I appreciate your comments.
      While it might be difficult or impossible for a student to pay the costs of their entire education, I do believe they need to have some of their own skin-in-the-game and contribute. That way, they truly do own their own education and will invest themselves to a greater extent.

  3. I also made both of my sons get a job – although not until their senior year of high school (they were in Boy Scouts and I wanted to give them the time and space to stay active there, hoping that they would get their Eagle badge). Unlike Jenna’s parents, I felt that it was important for them to experience what happens in a menial job – if only to give them the incentive to do well in college so that they didn’t have to remain in a menial job. (Both of my sons were somewhat lacking in motivation.) Sometimes it’s not just about the money, it’s also about defining the choices you make in life.

    1. Agree wholeheartedly, Kathy. It’s not about the money. And there are no menail jobs, just menial workers!

  4. Absolutely agree, Eric. One of the things I have going for me today is that I can out work a lot of people. I attribute that in large part to growing up on a farm where working was part of life for me starting at a very early age. Now as a parent, my sixteen year old starts his first “real job” next week bagging groceries. The only way you learn to work is by working. And regardless of how great a parent you are, kids can only learn so much working at home. The reality of being fired makes it real. Great post.

    1. Great news about your son, Jason. I bagged groceries for a summer in a small local market. Also had to stack and label cans, shrink wrap iceberg lettuce, sweep and mop the aisles, and a lot more. Amazing job for a kid. Hope he learns as much as I did.

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