Teen Jobs:
The Value of
Chopping Onions

by Kathleen Hebblewaite

Americans take pride in our work ethic. Unsurprisingly, many teenagers decide to take it upon themselves to follow that tradition by taking a part-time job while in school.

A primary concern among school counselors and teachers is the number of hours students work. Fourteen is the youngest a person can work, with the exception of delivering papers or working on a farm, and the number of permitted work hours differ between 14- and 15-year-old workers and 16- and 17-year-olds.

In Pennsylvania and Delaware, teens younger than 16 are not allowed to work more than 4 hours on a school day and no more than 18 hours in a week. New Jersey allows no more than 3 hours work on a school day for this age group. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act, which applies to all states, prevents minors from working in what officials label as “hazardous occupations” such as with meat slicers and pesticides.

Commissioner David Socolow of the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development says New Jersey has been making a special effort to provide child labor law information to parents. The department offers parent brochures in addition to maintaining a website, www.nj.gov/labor/lsse/lschild.html, which answers questions from the basic “how many hours can he work?” to more specific questions regarding managers who request excessive hours.

To prevent teen workers from slipping through the cracks, Socolow says, minors are required to apply for work papers every time they get a new job. Even with clear state laws, however, managers who fudge hours have been and continue to be a problem for teen workers.

“Some employers let them go a lot farther than they should,” says Mark McGrath, a counselor at Lawrence High School in Mercer County, NJ, and the past president of the New Jersey School Counselor Association. McGrath says exhaustion is a concern for only a small number of his students, but he does stress the importance of not overloading on work hours.

How Much Is Too Much?
Bucks County, PA psychologist Michael J. Bradley, PhD, author of Yes, Your Teen is Crazy (Harbor Press, $14.95), says research has shown that more than 14 hours of part-time work can be taxing to teenagers. He recommends that they try to work either immediately after school or on the weekends to prevent losing sleep. Although child labor laws set guidelines, both the parent and child have to decide what’s ultimately best.

McGrath disagrees with the some of the child labor laws. “It’s way too liberal to work 3 hours a day,” says McGrath, “That’s ridiculous for a 14-year-old working those hours.”

Jaye Pedante, president of the Pennsylvania School Counselors Association and director of student programs for the Springfield (PA) School District, says teens have to be very careful not to over-schedule themselves. “Work can take on an inflated importance,” she says. “School can fade into the background.”

Both McGrath and Pedante recommend that students not begin part-time work until they reach age 16 unless they must work for family reasons. “Most 13- to 15-year-olds are trying to manage all those puberty things going on,” says Pedante. “A job is an added stress.”

Benefits Beyond Pay
Although parents need to help teens limit the hours involved, a job can have benefits that outweigh the joy of a little spending money.

The most important reason to start working, according to McGrath, is to boost self-esteem. Whereas schoolwork is often memory-based, he says, work is more project-based. Working provides opportunities for teenagers to realize their potential outside of the classroom, which can focus on test-taking rather than the people skills that a job often requires.

Patricia Nelson, EdD, a family and human development specialist at the University of Delaware, says teens should try to focus on jobs that enable them to connect positively with others. “They should look for activities that get them excited,” Nelson says.

Of course, many of us remember jobs that did little to get us excited. Dr. Bradley says that even a tedious job can be beneficial because it instills an appreciation of higher education. “Suddenly school becomes very relevant after you’ve chopped onions for eight hours,” he says, “especially when they see some 40-year-olds in the same lousy job.”

Often Seen as an Activity
College admissions counselors often give a job the same weight as any other extracurricular activity. Lashonda Maddox, an admissions assistant at Drexel University, says any activity demonstrates time management skills, a necessity for college students. “They’re looked at as a whole,” she says.

Even if the job does not offer pay, it’s important for teens to have experiences that demand something of them, says Dr. Bradley. He suggests one way parents can jump start teens: Pay them for volunteer work at a community organization such as a hospital or a camp. “I’m all in favor of bribery,” he says, “I don’t care why a kid starts a good behavior. I just care that he starts.”

Ultimately, a part-time job can be a great opportunity to learn about oneself, even if that lesson is that you hate chopping onions.

Kathleen Hebblewaite is a MetroKids editorial assistant.