Teens, Jobs and School: The Pros and Cons

Most teens realize at a fairly young age the old adage that “money equals power.” Money equals designer clothes, a car and insurance, and in many cases a certain amount of freedom. And to make money, many teenagers take part-time jobs.

Although the advantages and/or disadvantages of teens and part-time jobs have been researched, studied, and discussed since at least 1979, judgments about teens, jobs, and effects on schoolwork are still unknown. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 50 percent of U.S. teens by age 12 have casual jobs, such as babysitting or yard work. And by age 15, nearly two-thirds of American teens have had some kind of job. And many researchers, including those on government panels like the National Commission on Youth, praise part-time work, saying it contributes to the transition from childhood to adulthood.

Parents and educators alike have been saying for decades that part-time jobs teach children to be responsible and manage money. But Temple University researcher Laurence Steinberg found that only 11 percent of college students report saving most of their money for college, and only three percent contribute to the cost of living. “Most of teens’ money goes toward clothing, cars, entertainment, and in some cases drugs and alcohol,” according to a study published in 1998 in Harvard Education Letter.

Steinberg says, “Students who work longer hours report decreased engagement in schooling, decreased academic achievement, increased mental health problems, higher drug and alcohol use, higher delinquency rates, and greater autonomy from parental supervision.” A 1997 study by David Stern, director of the National Research Center for Vocational Education at the University of California, Berkeley, proves Steinberg’s position. Research spanning more than 20 years shows that students who worked more than 15 hours a week achieved lower grades, did less homework, had a higher dropout rate, and were less likely to attend college than students who worked fewer than 15 hours a week.

But Jerald Bachman of the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future Project warns not to jump to conclusions about cause and effect. “I would say that most of the problems associated with long work days have a more fundamental cause,” he says. “That may contribute to the spiral, but I think the spiral is well on its way the moment they choose to work the long hours.”

While the drawbacks of a busy, part-time job are many, so are the benefits. A teen’s job can teach work skills that school doesn’t, and it can instill in the teen a new sense of confidence, responsibility, and independence. Making money allows your teen to buy things and manage money. An after-school job can also provide adult supervision, especially if you work longer hours than on a normal school day. And the right job can provide networking opportunities and put your child on a rewarding lifelong career path.

But before your child gets a job, there are some things you need to know. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, “Minor under age 14 should not be employed or allowed to work in any occupation except children who work on farms or in domestic service in private homes.” Children under 14 may also work on farms, be golf caddies, newspaper carriers or youth performers in the entertainment industry. But special permits may be required.

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Many state labor laws allow teens ages 14 and 15 to work no more than four hours a day during the school year and not before 7 a.m. or after 7 p.m. (During the summer, the number of work hours per day can be increased to eight.) Children under the age of 16 are prohibited, for example, by Pennsylvania law, from working in bowling centers (unless as a snack bar attendant, scorer, or checkpoint clerk), heavy construction, highway work, wherever liquor is sold or distributed, manufacturing, on scaffolding or ladders and window cleaners.

For 16- and 17-year-olds, some state laws say “minors are not allowed to work before 6 a.m. or after midnight on school days and at 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.” Also no more than eight hours a day and 28 hours a week. (During the summer, the only restriction on 16- and 17-year-olds is that they cannot work more than eight hours a day or 44 hours a week.) Young people under the age of 18 are not allowed to work in billiard rooms; do electrical work; operating elevators; performing crane and hoisting work; dig up; operate machines that perform woodworking, bakery mixes, cleaning, oiling, or punching; roofing; welding; and demolishing.

Securing your teen a job is a big step toward adulthood. Be sure to discuss the pros and cons with him or her. You can also agree on a trial job, such as “you can work this assessment period x number of hours per week and then we decide based on your grades whether you can continue working.” Maintaining good grades, continuing extracurricular activities, and maintaining a social life are important to your child’s psychological health and development. Also, budget with your child, set limits on spending, and enforce a percentage of salary in the savings policy. Good money management skills, acquired at an early age, will last a lifetime. Side jobs can be a wonderful experience, with the right guidance and parental guidance.