Little Details: Teen employment

Teen employment:
so much more than money

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

“I need a deuce…Refill the ice at the bar…Another order of delmonico potatoes for table five…Mi-iss, more water.” Orders flew at me in quick staccato from hostesses, bartenders, waitresses and customers.
Saturday’s dinner crowd kept staff running nonstop. Ravenous would-be diners, their patience worn thin, waited for tables to open. Thick slabs of juicy prime rib and baked stuffed lobsters beckoned, heightening pangs of hunger.
My Dad secured jobs for his daughters at the restaurant where he moonlighted as a bartender. My sister Jane was 12 when she started. Teresa was 13. I was the lazy one. I didn’t join the crew until 14.
Adult co-workers did not treat us as kids, nor did customers. We were expected to carry our weight, exemplified by lugging large oval trays of heavy crystal water glasses around the dining room. Uncensored adult conversations ran in real time as we completed side work, folding napkins and refilling salt and pepper shakers at evening’s end. I learned about mortgages, car payments, wayward young adult children and marital infidelity from the grown-up waitresses.
Working as a team and showing up on time with (sometimes fake) smiles on our faces were par for the course. Tips for hanging customer coats and cleaning up their dirty dishes bolstered our wages. My sisters and I could not wait tables because alcohol was served. We weren’t even supposed to clear glasses with remnant drops from Harvey Wallbangers and Highballs. But then, no one was watching.
We ended work around midnight, piling into my Dad’s car for the ride home, smelling of seafood and cigarettes. I avoid thinking what those seven years of secondhand cigarette smoke did to my maturing lungs.
The pace was fast. The work was physically and emotionally demanding. Crumpled dollars tucked into the pockets of my black skirt paid for school clothes and supplies and my youthful indulgence—voice lessons.
I picked up a second job junior year of high school to augment weekend earnings. It was easy. Fill out an application and, if you were reasonably neat and friendly, you got the gig. But then, that was the 1980s.
Teens today experience a far harder time finding part-time employment. An economy in recovery yields fewer jobs. More experienced workers seize and cling to traditional entry point positions scooping ice cream and running cash registers.
Teen employment levels, which stood at 45 percent in the year 2000, have dropped to an estimated 25 percent nationally. Should we care? I think so.
Research conducted by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University demonstrates that teen employment levels are at their lowest point since just after World War II when the labor market was flooded with returning servicemen. Concerns stem from longitudinal studies demonstrating that teens who work in high school enjoy greater professional success and incomes over their lifetimes. Benefits are realized from paid and volunteer work experience.
Research further shows that teens from families with higher incomes are more likely to be employed. In our society, if you are a white teenager, you’re far more likely to be earning a part-time paycheck than if you are a person of color. That is a problem given perpetual income disparities among people of different races.
If Mom frequents a café, she can casually ask the manager while paying for her latte if they’re hiring. If Dad plays golf, he can inquire if help is needed at the club. If a couple runs a family business—a restaurant or shop or garage—there’s likely a gig to be had by their offspring.
Soft skills in areas such as punctuality, communication, thoroughness and teamwork serve us well throughout our lives. Learning to juggle working with academics and activities provides valuable lessons in prioritizing.
“It’s not just a matter of kids getting some extra pocket money. Kids who don’t work carry this burden throughout adulthood,” said Andrew Sum of the Center for Labor Market Statistics at Northeastern University.
For all the positive research, it’s clear that working too much can negatively impact student academic achievement. Employment of 20 hours or less seems to be the magic formula for balancing school and work responsibilities.
So, what’s a Vermont teen looking for a summer gig to do? Start searching now for that summer job. You’ll earn so much more than money.
Some resources for teens seeking employment and/or volunteer resources:
CVU Directions Center

Katherine Bielawa Stamper, a Williston resident, was a 2013 finalist for the Coolidge Prize for Journalism. Reader comments are welcome at or