I took my first job at the age of 14. It wasn’t by choice. I had gotten into enough trouble during the school year that my dad decided it was a good idea to keep me busy. I worked as a student aid for the New York City Board of Education. My dad ran summer school every year, for as long as I remember. Every morning we would wake up before the sun rose, and we would drive in. We would grab breakfast, and we would talk mostly about the previous day.
That first job is special to me. Not just for the obvious reasons above, but because I still vividly remember my failures, struggles and successes. I remember my mentors who showed me what it meant to lead. I also remember the bad bosses who accomplished everything through verbal abuse. Do you remember the first person who talked down to you at work? I learned some of the most important lessons of my life at that job, and at the other summer jobs I held as a teen. My summer jobs provided me with the opportunity to make mistakes at work while the stakes were still low.
Last summer, less than thirty percent of teens had the opportunity to work. Most of the teens who worked got their jobs due to the intervention of their parents. Like me, those teens have a much easier time getting work. Those worst affected, as usual, are the teens that come from low income families. There are several reasons why this is the case, but I believe the most significant as the lack of transportation.
Jobs, in general, are bound to locations. As adults, we have the ability to relocate or hopefully commute. As jobs become scarce in one space, we can pick up and move to another space. In the book, “The new Geography of Jobs” by the economist Enrico Moretti, the author outlines where jobs are and where they will likely be in the future of America. It is useful for getting teens to think about the future in terms of location as well a career.
I am concerned though that their experiences will shape them like my experiences shaped me. But while I had the opportunity to grow, they will instead be shaped by the endless search for work. Our economic reality is bleak enough to intimidate those graduating from college. It won’t help us or the teens we serve if they lose faith something is out there for them before they even get to college.
My solution has been to take an active part in their job search. I have Google alerts set up to notify me of local job postings, and I have a Twitter hashtag associated with the local community in my Hootsuite. When I see something they are able to do, I send an email the teens with more information. It usually takes me about an hour a week. I am also encouraging them to actively pursue volunteer opportunities outside their church and school. Why outside? People can be easily conscripted to volunteer for the organizations close to them, but seeking out volunteer opportunities shows more initiative. Plus, networking works for them like it works for us. It is better to cast a wide net and hope for the best than putting unreal expectations on a single organization.