“I feel important.”
That was my younger daughter’s surprising answer to a mundane question. I had been wondering why she liked her job as a hostess at a busy restaurant so much, especially since it was her first “real” job as a teenager beyond watching kids or walking dogs. Frankly, I had expected the job would not appeal to her.
I was wrong. But shortly after she announced this surge of self-esteem, I remembered my own first real job as a teenager beyond mowing lawns or shoveling snow. My employment history began one summer at a grocery store in my hometown where I bagged groceries and stocked shelves.
My most vivid memory from that job? The day my manager walked by as I was working and said: “Vince, I wish I had 10 more just like you.” Talk about a shot-in-the-arm. I started hurling those cereal boxes on the shelf at lightning speed.
There are many benefits of a teenager working a first job, but this feeling of self-confidence is paramount. An endorsement from a first boss helps teenagers see themselves in a new light. Sure, all parents, relatives and friends try to surround children with positive messages about their self-worth. Hearing it from an objective source, however, makes it feel more authentic.
Indeed, on a recent tour of colleges with my older daughter, the admissions officer explained his committee likes students with work experience. For him, it shows the applicant understands that only quality performance earns praise in the “real” world.
First job teaches about self, others
Unfortunately, research shows the number of teens in “first” jobs — especially part-time summer jobs — has been declining steadily over the past few decades. The reasons include not only a less retail-oriented job market but also more college-prep activities for teens like summer classes, unpaid internships and volunteering. While such resume-building activities are understandable, the value of part-time jobs for teens may be getting lost in the process.
A first job has many helpful byproducts beyond self-confidence. For example, teens’ communication skills usually grow exponentially. They must learn how to navigate their first job interview, interact with customers and colleagues effectively, and respect authority while also expressing disagreements with tact. Such “soft” skills are even more valuable for teens to develop in today’s social media-saturated, eye-contact-optional, way-too-few-actual-conversations culture.
Another benefit of a first job is the teens’ entrance into our economic system. Yes, a teen quickly learns about a savings account as well as money (and time) management. But simply helping teens fill out their first tax form also leads to larger family discussions about how government works, the nature of capitalism, the minimum wage and the role of the social safety net, among others. While teens may learn about these ideas at school, they are never more attentive than when learning how such ideas directly impact the money they are earning.
Ironically, perhaps the most important skill a first job teaches teens is how to craft an exit strategy. Since most first jobs do not become careers, at some point they call for an appropriate parting of ways. When my older daughter needed to end her first job, the occasion gave us a chance to discuss the importance of informing a boss with enough time for him or her to find a replacement. Taking care to exit a job in the right way also preserves the ability to use that boss as a reference when applying for future jobs.
In our fast-paced, disposable culture of often-fleeting relationships, it can be invaluable to talk with teens about how the legacy of their work ethic truly begins with their first job.