Teens’ summer jobs becoming a thing of the past for most

Published 10:54 am Tuesday, June 13, 2017

By Tom Purcell

I learned how to keep golf balls from bashing me in my shins.

That was the most important skill a kid could learn at the driving range where I worked. I was in the eighth grade. The lousy job paid only $1 per hour.

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Though I usually picked golf balls early in the morning before the golfers arrived, sometimes I worked the evening shift. I’d put a big cage over my shoulders and head and pick golf balls while dozens of golfers tried to bean me.

I bring up this unpleasant experience in regard to a Bloomberg article I read. Whereas summer jobs were a rite of passage for the baby-boom generation, many of today’s teens are opting out of the workforce — despite a low unemployment rate and a demand for summer workers.

According to Bloomberg, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics “expects the teen labor force participation rate to drop below 27 percent in 2024, or 30 points lower than the peak seasonally adjusted rate in 1989.”

Why are fewer teens taking summer jobs?

One reason is that jobs typically tailored for teens are either shrinking or being taken by older folks (who are supplementing their retirement income) or by immigrants. Another is that more teens are attending summer school, participating in extracurricular activities and volunteering.

Though Bloomberg doesn’t mention it, some argue there is another reason: Fewer teens are willing to flip burgers or work manual labor during their summer vacation — preferring to play video games inside air-conditioned houses instead.

Whatever the reason, it is a shame that fewer teens are working summer jobs. Such work exposes them to how the industry operates. It teaches them the value of a dollar. It gives them dignity as they exchange their labor for money they can use to support their education.

I got my very first job in the summer before I became an eighth-grader. I persuaded a neighbor to hire me to cut her lawn for five bucks. She had an electric mower with a long extension cord – which I promptly ran over and destroyed. I got canned before I finished the job.

After working a few summers at the driving range for a buck an hour, I got the entrepreneurial bug. I decided I was a stone mason. Many homes in Pittsburgh have retaining walls, which have to be rebuilt every so many years. I put ads in the paper and went to work.

After a few months of mistakes and mishaps, I learned how to bid the jobs. I hired two or three others to help me run the jobs. I slowly began to master the art of cutting and placing stones. And the cash came rolling in. I was doing mighty fine for a 17-year-old and earned enough in a few months to pay for my first year of college.

I worked a series of jobs in college: dishwasher, janitor, handyman, grass cutter. I worked as a bouncer, too, which involved kicking drunk people out of bars and mopping up that which some patrons couldn’t keep down — the most respect I ever got then or now.

In any event, these jobs helped me learn how to socialize and work with others. I learned that some people are not very nice and sometimes not very honest. I learned self-reliance and the joy that comes with a job well done.

As more of today’s teens miss out on such experiences, how might that affect their future?

At the very least, they’d better stay off driving ranges, as they will never learn how to keep errant golf balls from bashing them in their shins.

Tom Purcell is a syndicated columnist. He can be reached via email at Tom@TomPurcell.com.