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Employers' Perceptions Of Employment Readiness, Reasons Students WorkGENERAL IMPACT ON STUDENTS

Katherine L. Hughes

John Maslyn
Mark Cannon

Katherine L. Hughes


Paid employment begins at a relatively young age in the United States. While exact figures vary, depending on the means of measurement, a survey published in 2000 by the U.S. Department of Labor found that half of American twelve-year-olds have had some kind of work experience. While at such young ages work experiences tend to be informal and short-term, as American youth progress through their teenage years their work becomes more formal and more time-consuming. Researchers have been paying increasing attention to the effects on youth of working. In general, the results from this body of research lead to neither a blanket endorsement nor a condemnation of school-aged youth working for pay.

There have been several phases of research on youth and work. Before 1970, researchers paid almost no attention to students' paid work. The influential report of the Coleman commission of the President's Science Advisory Committee (1974) blamed schooling–because it isolates young people from adults and from productive work–for actually retarding youth's transition to adulthood. The report called for placing young people into work situations earlier, as a tool for social development. Presumably, work would provide a valuable educational experience, even if the work took place in an occupation not related to the eventual employment.

As national surveys in the 1970s and 1980s were demonstrating that paid youth work was very common, Ellen Greenberger and Laurence Steinberg's When Teenagers Work, which reported the results of research on primarily middle-class youth in California, brought attention to some negative consequences of work. This spurred a lively debate and further study among academics. In particular, some feared that work could have negative consequences on school engagement and performance. While youths tend to work more during the summer than during the school months, some data show that the majority of high school juniors and seniors do work during the academic year. At the start of the twenty-first century, researchers have been turning their focus to the quality of young people's jobs and proposing to increase jobs' learning content through formal linkages with school curricula.

In contrast to the concern over too much working, some find access to work for minority and low socioeconomic status youth to be a greater problem. Working during high school does reduce the risk of unemployment later. Racial and ethnic disparities in teenage job-holding and in the number of hours worked are well-established. Multiple studies indicate that minority teenagers, and teens in poor families and families receiving public assistance, are less likely to work than white or higher socioeconomic status youth. As Jeylan T. Mortimer and her colleagues reported in 1990, "employment is very much a middle-class phenomenon" (p. 208). In one study of several hundred youth in Baltimore, African-American youth reported equal or greater jobseeking as white youth but lower rates of obtaining jobs. Hence African-American youth started working later, and were less often employed. The U.S. Department of Labor reported in 2000 that African-American and Hispanic youth have much higher unemployment rates than do white youth. However, when they do work, Hispanic youth work more hours during the school year than do other youth.

Young people's first paid jobs tend to be informal (or "freelance jobs," as the U.S. Department of Labor refers to them), such as child care and lawn work. According to Mortimer and associates (1990), girls tend to start paid work earlier, yet their first jobs are more likely than those of boys to be of the informal type and concentrated within a smaller number of areas. Of the ninth-graders in this study, most of the girls were working in private households while the boys were more divided among informal work, sales work, and restaurant work.

Research has established that there are sex differences in industry and occupation of young workers. Male and female youth are about equally likely to work in eating and drinking places, with about 27 percent of fifteen-year-old boys and 31 percent of fifteen-year-old girls working in such establishments, but males are more likely to be employed in the agriculture, mining, construction, and manufacturing industries. Boys fifteen to seventeen years of age are much more likely to work in farm, forestry, and fishing occupations, as well as blue-collar occupations, while girls of the same ages tend to work in sales occupations such as cashier (this is true for the school year and the summer months).

Youth tend to give the reason for working as "to buy things," noted the Mortimer study in 1990. Katherine S. Newman makes the point that teenagers from poor families in particular need to work so that they have money with which to participate in youth culture, yet Doris R. Entwhistle and associates reported that lower-status youth are more likely than other youth to share their earnings with their family. The young fast-food workers in Harlem that Newman studied also sought work as a place to escape from violence in their own neighborhoods.

Earnings for teenage workers are generally just above minimum wage; in 1998 median earnings of fifteen- to seventeen-year-olds were $5.57 per hour, while minimum wage was $5.15. Hourly earnings do increase with age. White and Hispanic males tend to have the highest median hourly earnings while Hispanic and African-American females have the lowest. Mortimer's 1990 report found significant wage differences between boys and girls overall, with boys reporting a higher mean wage.

Employment after School and Effects on Academic Outcomes

The propensity of American youth to work (and often to work a significant number of hours) during the school year has led to debate among researchers and policymakers about the effect of this work on young people, particularly on their academic engagement and achievement.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, during the 1996–1998 school months, 39 percent of seventeen-year-olds were employed during the average month. This method of measurement, tabulating the percentage of young people employed at a particular point in time, minimizes the extent of youth work; when students are asked if they have ever worked during their high school years, figures are significantly higher. An analysis of National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) data in 1995 by Michael Pergamit found that about 64 percent of juniors and 73 percent of seniors said that they had worked at least one week during the school year.

The concern over youth working while in school emanates from two perspectives. One focuses on the amount of time spent at the workplace, reasoning that time spent at work is likely to be time taken away from academic pursuits such as homework. While young people work longer hours during the summer than they do during the school year, the number of hours spent on the job in the academic months, about 17 per week according to the Department of Labor, is still significant. Another concern is about the low quality of the jobs youth tend to hold. As noted above, young people tend to start with informal jobs, such as child care and lawn work, with the majority then moving into the retail trade industry, which includes eating and drinking places such as fast-food outlets. There is the question of whether youth gain developmentally at all on the job, given the low-level positions they tend to have. Young people themselves say they work to earn money to buy things and save for college, rather than to add to their knowledge or skills.

In general, an examination of the literature on youth working while in high school finds costs and benefits, and some of the literature is conflicting. In terms of effects on academic achievement, some researchers have found a negative relationship between the number of hours worked during the school year and both high school and postsecondary school attainment measures. However, David Stern and Derek Briggs reviewed the literature and concluded that the relationship between hours of work and performance in school actually follows an inverted-U pattern, meaning that students who work more moderate hours perform at a higher level in high school than students who work more heavily or not at all. This pattern appears to extend to postsecondary achievement as well; Department of Labor analysis of NLSY data shows that teenagers who worked twenty or fewer hours per week while in high school were more likely to have achieved at least some college education by age thirty than those who had worked more than twenty hours or not at all.

However, some researchers contend that the observed effects are spurious because they do not take into account preexisting differences between students who work and those who do not. And some of the research is not able to fully sort out the direction of causality. For example, students who are not already performing well in school may seek more hours at their paid jobs, rather than spending long hours studying. Researchers have also questioned the zero-sum assumption that hours on the job are hours not spent in study. An analysis of longitudinal data by Mark Schoenhals, Marta Tienda, and Barbara Schneider found that youth employment lowered the amount of time spent in watching television, not the time spent reading or doing homework.

Employment during the Summer

Youth are more likely to work during the summer than during the school year, and according to the Department of Labor, 20 percent of employed youth aged fifteen to seventeen work full-time over the summer months, compared with 6 percent during the rest of the year. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Barbara Schneider report that youth from higher-income families generally have more work experience and are particularly more likely to work solely in the summer.

Employed youth aged fifteen to seventeen tend to work in similar industries in the summer as they do during the school year, with the majority working in retail, which includes eating and drinking establishments. However, in the summer the proportion in retail declines somewhat as teens take more jobs in agriculture, construction, and service industries. Csikszentmihalyi and Schneider note that affluent teenagers tend to have jobs such as camp counselor and lifeguard, likely reflecting their tendency to work only during the summer and the opportunities available in their communities, while working-class youth were found more likely to hold positions in fast-food outlets. Hourly earnings for youth working during the summer versus the school months are about the same.

In the research literature there is much less concern about, and hence much less attention given to, paid work that students perform during the summer months. One study that did attempt to measure the costs and benefits of summer work to youth found that summer employment had positive effects on post–high school employment status and other outcomes. According to Herbert W. Marsh, no negative effects were found. Thus the summer employment problem may be better redefined as the difficulty that minority and low socioeconomic status youth face in gaining access to valuable paid positions. As noted above, there are racial and ethnic disparities in teenage job-holding and in the number of hours worked. While the federal government has long funded summer job programs aimed at youth with serious barriers to employment, the 1998 Workforce Investment Act changed the focus to year-round services, eliminating the separate appropriation for summer activities.

Effects on Psychosocial Outcomes

There is no doubt about the importance of the work role in adulthood, thus most recognize that for an adolescent, taking on a new social role as worker can be a formative experience. Yet there is considerable debate about whether the experience affects the development of youth positively or negatively. In addition, there may be sex differences with regard to developmental impact, as girls and boys tend to have different types of jobs, particularly in their early teens.

Some researchers question whether youth gain any skills at all on the job, given the positions youth have and the workplaces they are in, and argue, as do Greenberger and Steinberg, that youth work can lead to stress as well as to adult behaviors such as alcohol use. Studies do report that working is associated with "problem behaviors" such as substance abuse and other delinquent activities; Mortimer, Carolyn Harley, and Pamela Aronson provided a review of a number of these studies in 1999. Again, however, the direction of causality is difficult to determine.

Most research finds that the general public regards youth work positively, believing it to have developmental benefits. For example, a study by Mortimer and associates published in 1999 examined parents' retrospective views of their early jobs, as well as their attitudes toward their children's work. The parents were enthusiastic about working during adolescence, listing a variety of competencies they believed they had acquired as a result, such as gaining a sense of responsibility, money management skills, discipline, and so on. Not surprisingly, then, the parents had favorable attitudes about their children's employment. The children reported benefits of working quite similar to those their parents had reported.

With regard to skills learned on the job, a study of youth working in fast food argues that these positions do yield skills, as they require much in the way of information processing, coordination, and responding to unpredictable events. Youth also must learn to handle customers, which can help them to develop what Newman characterizes as "people skills." Other research has found that even positions such as child care can develop innovative thinking skills in and provide challenge to young people. Mortimer and Catherine Yamoor (1987) pointed out that the opportunity for self-direction in a work setting can have positive consequences for a worker's self-concept and interest in work. Thus research has examined not only the types of specific skills youth workers might gain on the job, but also psychological effects that might influence attitudes and behaviors.

An important point brought out in the research is that the influence of a particular job on a young person likely depends on the nature of the job. One study finds that "the quality of the work (i.e., its stressful or rewarding character) is a more important determinant of adolescent psychological functioning than either work status or its intensity" (Finch et al., p. 606). However, young people actually report little stress from their jobs alone; it is combining or juggling being both a worker and a student that can be stressful.

Connecting Work and School

Several researchers have observed that youth perceive school and the workplace as conflicting, not complementary, and argue that more efforts should be made to integrate the two. A study by Barbara Schneider and David Stevenson found that youth enjoy working more than they enjoy being in school.

There seems little chance that students will cease working. Thus researchers and policymakers are increasingly turning to a focus on building and strengthening connections between work and school, which should help to improve the nature of some youth work. While school-arranged work placements such as co-op and internships have been in place for years, the 1990s saw a renewed emphasis on school-sponsored work-based learning, particularly through the 1994 School-to-Work Opportunities Act. Research by Alan M. Hershey, Marsha K. Silverberg, and Joshua Haimson evaluating the effectiveness of the legislation included surveys of 1998 high school seniors, who reported that work opportunities offered through the schools had important advantages over the workplace activities students reported finding on their own. School-developed positions tended to be in a wider range of industries, and tended to more closely match students' career goals. Students with school-arranged paid jobs were more likely than other students to spend at least half their time in training on the job. They were also more likely to report discussing possible careers with adults at their workplace, and were more likely to receive a performance evaluation from school or employer staff. Students who had obtained positions through school more often reported using academic or technical skills learned in school at the workplace, and were more likely to draw on their work experience in school assignments or discussions, thus experiencing more substantive connections between their studies and work experience.

Despite the challenges of coordinating work activities through school, advocates of these arrangements hope to expand them. While there is no definitive answer to the question of whether working during the school year negatively affects students' school work, it is certainly desirable to help youth perceive school and the workplace as complementary, rather than conflicting. Since it is unlikely that young people will stop working, the idea is to help youth gain as much as possible from their employment experiences.


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