Students gain workforce skills through part-time jobs

By Linda Jacobson

As soon as he turned 16, Jaden Deal took a job at a restaurant bussing tables and working as a host. Now a junior at Norwalk (IA) High School, southwest of Des Moines, he’s taken a job as a server and works 15 to 20 hours a week.

“The pay is good, and the tips are even better,” Deal says. “I’m able to come from a day after work and help my dad to pay bills or buy groceries. It’s just the two of us living together, so anything extra I can help provide makes all the difference.”

Deal, however, says he often wishes that he — and other students working jobs — had more time to prepare for tests or complete assignments for school.

“My entire life, I grew up learning to always put homework first,” he says, “but I always choose to take that extra shift and do whatever I can to support my family.”

With all the recent attention to the value of apprenticeships and internships for high school students, the renewed interest in career and technical education programs — and models that link learning to postsecondary pathways and possible career options — there has been little discussion among education leaders of how schools can better support students who are already working after school or on the weekends.

In fact, the increasing academic demands placed on high school students is one likely explanation for why the percentage of teens in the labor force has steadily declined over the past 40 years, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Their data shows that in 1979, 60% of 16- to 19-year-olds were part of the U.S. labor force, but now only about 34% are working— and the rate is projected to drop to just over 25% by 2024.

“After sleeping, school activities take up more time than anything else in a teenager’s week day. And high school coursework has become more strenuous,” according to a 2017 DOL blog post. “High-schoolers today are taking tougher and more advanced courses, including those specifically designed for college preparation and credit.”

Short- and long-term benefits of youth employment

Recent research, however, shows that working while in high school, and then later in college, leads to higher wages than just accumulating more years of education. Released in December, the study — by researchers at Duke University, Pepperdine University and the University of Oklahoma — was based on data from the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth, conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“In particular, the authors argue, it’s a mistake to attribute college graduates’ higher wages exclusively to their schooling, rather than the work experience they gain while enrolled as scholars,” according to a piece on the study in The 74.  

According to a 2016 Child Trends paper, working while in high school may be especially important for students who are more likely to struggle academically. “Youth — especially those who are black, Hispanic or economically disadvantaged — who have some employment experience while in school are less likely to drop out than those who do not work during high school,” the authors write.

Jobs also provide students with more immediate benefits, such as learning how to interact and communicate with adults, take on leadership responsibilities, and manage money. They also acquire many of the other soft skills that employers are increasingly saying are just as important as academic achievements or technical ability.

In February, in fact, Kentucky’s House Education Committee passed a bill that outlines the “essential skills” students need for the workforce. The proposal would create a “work ethic certificate” for students who demonstrate that they are “transition ready,” according to a Kentucky business article.

And most states have included “a strategy to increase students’ career readiness” in their Every Student Succeeds Act plans, according to the States Leading Campaign, a joint project of the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Education Commission of the States, the National Association of State Boards of Education and the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Being a ‘reliable employee’

Deal says he’s already gained many of these skills by working as a host and a server.

“I feel like I’ve developed ‘people skills’ from working in the restaurant industry,” he says, adding that he plans to continue serving after high school and through college. “I can make small talk a lot more easily and I’ve learned more about my community by talking with the people I’m serving.” 

In a 2015 Washington Post article, Jeffrey Selingo, an author and professor at Arizona State University, wrote that there is “no replacement for managing a part-time job,” even if it doesn’t fall into a pathway or career field that a student might eventually pursue.

“It’s where they learn the importance of showing up on time, keeping to a schedule, completing a list of tasks, and being accountable to a manager who might give them their first dose of negative feedback so they finally realize they’re not as great as their teachers, parents, and college acceptance letters have led them to believe,” he wrote.

Caitlyn Grow, a senior at Waukee High School, also outside of Des Moines, works in a before- and after-school program every morning and in a law office three afternoons a week. This means she sometimes finds herself staying up late to complete homework.

“I think school work is more important, but being a reliable employee is a significant responsibility as well,” says Grow, who puts her earnings toward car payments and college savings.

For a teenager, Josh Miller, a sophomore at Maple Grove (MN) Senior High School, has taken a nontraditional route.

He started his own consulting business that helps companies connect with Generation Z consumers and is now the director of Generation Z Studies at XYZ University. Because he doesn’t have set work hours, he might spend five hours one day on work-related projects and one hour the next. His school also excuses him for speaking engagements and travel days as long as he keeps his grades up, but he knows he is fortunate in this respect.

“Sometimes it is difficult to get schoolwork done because my work seems to be much more exciting and relevant,” Miller says. “Schools should support working students rather than treat working as a detriment to academic success.”

Connecting businesses with students who want to work

Educators, meanwhile, are increasingly being approached by business and industry leaders who have current and future workforce needs. For example, in Fort Collins, CO, in December, roughly 200 parents of high school students turned out for a parents night hosted by a local manufacturing company.

And south of Pittsburgh, Elizabeth Forward School District Superintendent Bart Rocco says local companies have been looking at how to “build relationships” with schools. “Companies and businesses now see that they need to be more involved in secondary education,” he says, adding that he thinks there’s room for discussion about matching students who want or need to work with the companies and industries that are looking for entry-level employees.

“The role of schools is to be an effective partner with their workforce system,” says Kisha Bird, the director of youth policy at the Center for Law and Social Policy. In turn, workforce agencies should be communicating labor market data to school districts. “Too often, there is not a real connection.”

She added that it’s also important for schools to increase counseling positions as these professionals can help identify job opportunities for students and work as liaisons with local businesses or organizations offering youth employment.

Another approach is for students to “maximize summer employment opportunities,” which likely means lining up interviews in early spring to get ahead of others that might be looking for summer jobs, and for schools to emphasize workforce skills building throughout the year.

In a recent piece for The 74, Kelli Hillestad, a counselor at Brooklyn Center High School, north of Minneapolis, suggests that paid internships are another way to address the gap between students who need to work and the benefits of work experiences that are tied to the curriculum.

“Although internships are on the rise in many high schools across America, most of these opportunities are unpaid,” she writes. “That’s a clear disadvantage for students who need the meaningful work experience that internships provide but do not have the luxury of being able to work for free.”  

The school formed a partnership with a nonprofit organization that places students from low-income families in internships where they can make $10,000 during their senior year. “For underrepresented students, the ability to earn money while engaging in a professional learning opportunity is a true win-win,” she writes. “For companies, paying interns increases expectations for the value that those interns bring to their roles; the students perform meaningful work instead of menial tasks.”

Finding time for school and work

Students who attend schools with personalized or flexible learning models say these more individualized approaches have allowed them to better balance the demands of work and school.

Sheila Paz, who attends River Bluff Senior High School in Lexington, SC, and works at Trader Joe’s, says she has breaks during the school day to complete her homework. But since she has also earned most of her credits for graduation, she wishes she could get out of school early one day a week so she could take a longer shift at the store and still get her homework done.

That’s what happens at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, a project-based school where Samuel Dennis is a senior. Students are dismissed before 1 p.m. on Wednesdays and can use the time to work or complete senior projects, Dennis says. “My high school is one that highlights the benefits of individualized learning,” says Dennis, who works at a bakery. “They really want you to take charge of your education.”

At Legacy High School in Bismarck, ND, which has instituted a "personalized scheduling" model, students have breaks during the day in which they can complete homework or get one-on-one help from teachers. The school also has a “Saber” centers where students can find tutoring and even take make-up tests. Heather Kostelecky, who teaches pre-calculus and Advanced Placement statistics, says it was difficult to get students to come in after school for help or to take missed assessments. But now they can take care of those issues during the school day.

“I have several students who work after school, and I definitely think the [flexible] schedule helps students who use it wisely,” she says. “Students who use their Saber time during school hours to get homework done don’t have to worry about getting home late from a job and then having to do homework on top of the job.”

The push in some districts and states to start school later, especially at the secondary level, is another policy matter that impacts students who work.

Stacy Simera is a mental health professional, the communications director for the Start School Later campaign and the mother of two teenagers who work as lifeguards at an indoor fitness center. Both of them now start school at 8:30 a.m.

“Compared to middle school, when they both were waking in the 6 o'clock hour, they are happier and much more patient — which are good qualities in any setting: home, school, and work,” she says. “If I was employing teens, I would want them to be as healthy, happy and alert as possible.”

In Greenwich, CT, the local Start School Later organizers conducted an informal survey of managers that employ high school students, such as grocery stores and coffee shops. They asked if starting and dismissing school an hour later — so students could sleep longer in the morning — would affect their businesses. The employers said they would adjust.

“Since our time change, no reports of job or employer difficulties,” says Wheatleigh Dunham, who leads the Connecticut chapter of the campaign. In fact, he says, participation at the Boys and Girls Club has increased because now there are more high school students working in their after-school programs — perhaps because they still have time to do homework in the evening.

Of course, there are limits to the benefits of working while in high school. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that working more than 15 hours per week as a high school senior can reduce the likelihood that a student will complete college and increase the use of cigarettes.

Experts say it’s important for educators to not only know if their students have after-school jobs, but to recognize if they are having difficulty juggling their out-of-school responsibilities and to help them find balance.

If a student can’t stay awake in class or is missing assignments, too many hours at work might be the reason. “You never know what is behind a child’s eyes,” Rocco says.