Report: Fewer teens work during summer, but beginners still reap benefits

Report: Fewer teens work during summer, but beginners still reap benefits

It was during the hot summer months years ago in central Illinois when a then-14-year-old Ashlee Rhodes received her first paycheck.

She was working as a corn detasseler. The job wasn't exactly glamorous, she said, but she learned valuable lessons — ones that eventually helped her rise to become the store manager at one of Champaign's landmarks, Jarling's Custard Cup.

"It was the worst thing in the world," she said. "Any job I have for the rest of my life will be better than detasseling, and although college helped me with my work ethic, I would have had a harder time with getting to that comfort level had I not done it."

The Great American summer job has long been considered a rite of passage for teens. But as high school students across the country finish up their academic year, many teenagers won't be working, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In a report this month, researchers estimate that less than 40 percent of teens will be employed this summer, down from 72 percent in 1978. In July 2017, only about 35 percent of teenagers were employed, according to bureau reports; the year before, it had been 60 percent.

Labor experts have noted that potential reasons for the vacancies in retail jobs is due to internships, school obligations and sheer laziness.

Although scooping frozen custard at one of the busiest restaurants in town on a steamy summer day may not seem like the greatest gig, Rhodes said, early exposure to customer service can help teens gain lifelong skills valuable in future occupations.

"The teens are the faces of our business," she said. "They are constantly taking orders, so they learn how to not be shy anymore. Little things like asking how their day is or how their order was are the interactions that are really important, because so many different people come in for our products."

Of the Jarling's 37 employees, 20 are teens, Rhodes said.

For Rhodes, work ethic is not a subject that can be taught in a classroom. At 14, she worked long, tedious hours under the summer sun detasseling corn, which later was responsible for forming her integrity, she said.

"Starting to work at a young age really helped me branch out and made me more social," Rhodes said. "I wasn't as scared to talk to other people; I was comfortable with meeting new people all the time, and I think it geared me up to help me with being successful — I'm running a landmark."

The store manager said it's important to work at a young age to build better communication skills, and if she hadn't done that job before college, she thinks the struggle getting acclimated to the college social scene would have been harder.

Teen employment throughout the year is also vanishing from where it stood in past decades, not just in the summer, according to the labor statistics. Less than one-third of teens were employed in April, down from 53 percent 40 years ago, data indicates.

However, this statistic isn't new information for Champaign-Urbana employers.

In 2011, Champaign Unit 4 schools and the city of Champaign worked in partnership to design a program meant to keep kids out of trouble during the summer by giving them jobs that June, utilizing one-time funding from the Urban Renewal Fund, program supervisor Mindy Smith said.

The organization later recognized the need for a youth employment program that offered jobs only in the summer. The result is Youth Employment Services, launched in January 2017, which connects unemployed high school students and recent graduates with employers for jobs that run from June 18 to July 28.

Smith said the program has evolved, and the list of employers wanting to be part of the program expands each year. This summer, 110 students have been placed with jobs, compared to 103 last year.

"We're able to connect students to people in the community who are in the career field that the students are interested in," Smith said. "There, students get networking experience with adults who can provide a mentoring opportunity. Not only are they getting first-time job experience, but they're getting an adult who forms that support system, which is huge when you're in high school figuring out what you're trying to do."

Students who follow through with the program show differences in approaching life problems, as well as improved organizational and communication skills, Smith said.

"The skills we see them develop over the summer carry over to how they perform the next year in school, which is huge," she said. "I think any high school kid should have an opportunity to be working in the summer and having those benefits. It's amazing to see those positive effects a job can have on their lives."

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