How Employers and Educators Can Help Teens Avoid Career Dead-Ends This Fall

Published jul. 14, 2021

A few months ago, the rhetoric about young adult employment was full of dire predictions—an economic tsunami spelled disaster for young people, and today’s teens were destined to become a lost generation.

Now it’s a different story. This summer, employers are courting teens to fill a wide range of job openings with offers that include higher hourly wages, flexible scheduling, and perks like free meals. And several states are sweetening the pot by using COVID relief funds to offer hiring bonuses to unemployed workers who take hard-to-fill jobs.

This summer should be a learning moment enriched with work experiences that serve as living career exploration laboratories.

As a national nonprofit whose tag line is “building a future that works”—and whose relentless focus is to improve or radically restructure our country’s education and workforce systems to ensure economic mobility for all—JFF should be cheering these new developments in the labor market. And from one perspective, we are: It’s about time people in frontline jobs—and young people generally—started getting compensated more fairly for the essential services they provide.

But we’re also worried. Our experience supporting the creation of career-focused pathways that lead from high school to postsecondary education to the job market has taught us that far too many young people know little about careers when they graduate from high school, and many remain in the dark as college students.

Today’s improved job market could exacerbate that problem. When jobs are plentiful, students drop out of school. Young people who aren’t thinking about their futures may be so happy with the money they’re being paid for jobs this summer that they decide not to go back to school in the fall. Then they could eventually find themselves stuck in static jobs that offer little opportunity for career or economic advancement.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. This job market presents families, educators, employers, and community members with an opportunity to teach teens how to evaluate their employment and training options and think critically about what they want in a job and a career. This summer should be a learning moment enriched with work experiences that serve as living career exploration laboratories.

Employers Should Support Working Learners

The first step is for employers to encourage their teen employees to return to school in September and recognize that those who want, or need, to stay on part time are not just employees but working learners. Employers can observe and take an interest in these young employees, encourage them to take advantage of learning opportunities, tell personal stories about how they achieved their goals, help them recognize their strengths and skills, and connect them with mentors. And most important, employers can adopt policies that show that they recognize the importance of education—by offering flexible scheduling options at exam time, or creating work-based learning programs that allow students to get paid while earning college credit. Yay to the companies that have accepted that challenge by offering internships, apprenticeships, and talent development programs, and who are nurturing their young employees as the talent pipeline of the future.

Schools too have a big role to play. This fall, instead of asking students routine questions about how they spent the summer, teachers and other school personnel can ask them serious questions about their summer jobs. How did they get a job? Did someone help with networking? What new people skills did they learn? Were there tough moments with supervisors or veteran employees? Were they satisfied at work?

Many states have college and career planning frameworks and often require students to make academic and career plans. It would make sense to use summer or part-time employment as a jumping off place for those exercises by encouraging students to connect what skills they learned, or what they discovered about themselves, on the job with their hopes and dreams for the future. My home state, Massachusetts, has a fine framework called MyCAP (My Career and Academic Plan) and high-quality professional development tools for teachers. MyCAP is great, but it should have a curriculum that recognizes that the current state of the economy has a big impact on the way 16-year-olds experience the labor market—and therefore has a big impact on the way they envision their future careers.

Teens Can Learn From Post-Pandemic Labor Market Shifts

Here’s a lesson schools could teach students about career planning just by using the latest headlines: Recently, major news outlets have reported that many adult workers are quitting their jobs or choosing not to return to the fields they were in before losing work during the pandemic. What do students think is going on here? What does this behavior tell them about what adults think is important in a job? What makes people love their jobs? What is a good job?

Teens could learn a lot by thinking about why so many adults want to change their lives and have better working conditions.

Teens could learn a lot by thinking about why so many adults want to change their lives and have better working conditions, more family time, and importantly, higher wages, decent health care benefits, and flexible schedules. If nothing else, they’d understand that $15 an hour and an annual salary of $30,000 isn’t enough to pay rent, put food on the table, save for a house, buy a car, and take a vacation.

And beyond that, schools and employers can help teens understand that there’s more to career planning than how much money you can make in a given field. Young people should know that if you want to have choices about work, you need to understand fields of study, your own talents and preferences, and how people behave in various types of workplaces. And getting the skills you need starts early.

Every high school student should contemplate this statistic: Full-time workers spend 90,000 to 110,000 hours on the job in a lifetime (more hours than they spend sleeping or being with their families). With that in mind, teachers need to be alert for “ambition gaps” in students who either set their sights too low—perhaps because no one offers them career advice beyond what so many loving parents say: “Go to college; do better than I did”—or too high—like those who might decide they want to be doctors without having had an early start on advanced science and math courses.

Our schools and colleges need to educate students about the labor market, career ladders, and the importance of technical and professional skills—in short what education and experiences are best preparation for good jobs, how to put economic security in your sights, and how to plan for the life you want to live.

Policymakers Can Help Spread the Word

Policymakers can play an important role, too. While we hesitate to call for government-mandated changes to high school or college curricula, or to suggest new laws that give added responsibilities to businesses that have teens on the payroll, we do believe that policymakers should use the bully pulpit to spread these messages far and wide. And they should be on the alert for opportunities to work with employers and educators to help teens understand how the economy really works.

Policymakers, educators, employers, and youth advocates must all help teens confront the knowns and unknowns of the future of work, and their message needs to be loud and clear: A summer spent slinging burgers may be a fun way to earn spending money. But the payoff will be far greater if you embrace the experience as a first step toward building the professional knowledge, social and emotional capacities, and technical skills that the jobs of the future will demand.