Should High School Students Have Jobs?

Here’s a typical scenario that I’ve witnessed over and over again during the last several years as a high school teacher:

JP is an average student, receiving mostly B’s and C’s in school.  He wants to save up for a used car–perhaps a Honda Civic Coupe–and be able to pay for his iPhone bill. He doesn’t get an allowance from his parents or guardians, and he has very few connections to business owners, but he’s confident he can get a fast food job, since they’re always hiring. He gets a job at local fast food chain, signing up for 20 hours a week to start.

The problem is, JP decides to quit basketball, and stops coming to tutoring after school because he “has work.” In JP’s eyes, making money TRUMPS all extracurricular possibilities and improving his academic work. JP isn’t expected to help pay any bills at home, besides his phone bill, so he’s prioritized like many high school students do. Can’t live without the phone.

Each student who chooses to work has a unique set of circumstances. After ten+ years teaching, however, I believe very few high school students should choose to work during the school year. Would I recommend a student get a job instead of playing video games for hours on end after school? Probably. Would I tell a student he or she shouldn’t work to help keep the lights on at home? Nope.

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I would, however, tell 9 out of 10 students to bypass that fast-food application and instead, join a team. Go to cooking club. Environmental club. Pep band. Whatever! Do opportunities to grow intellectually and emotionally through wholesome, non-work related activities trump any benefit the average student would receive working a minimum-wage job? I think so.

I’ve seen too many students come to school with baggy eyes, nodding off during first period because of a long work shift the previous afternoon or night. I’ve seen too many students fail to show up for tutoring after school–despite dropping grades–because of work. I’ve seen students quit cheerleading, football, and basketball in order to work.

On the other hand, I’ve seen what can happen if a student proactively decides to quit working in order to pursue new passions.  One student, who blossomed in my digital media class, struggled mightily at first to muster up the time and energy to do documentary work, toiling for long hours at White Castle. She helped pay the bills at home. But she eventually mustered up the courage to quit her job, realizing that giving herself more time for her newfound passion of photography and digital media work would pay more dividends than sweating grease.

She and another student started their own business within a year, but she doesn’t consider it work.

Admittedly, there are advantages to getting a part-time job. Gaining “real-world” experience and dealing with people, time management, and financial responsibility are possible byproducts from working. For some students who aren’t “good” at school, work gives them a sense of purpose.  And some students have to help pay the bills.

And I’ll also admit I never had to work, but I also never had my own car, nor did I have a cell phone. I worked various jobs during the summers: hauling furniture for a moving company, packaging rugs for shipment, and stacking pallets of beer during a graveyard shift.

Almost to a T, the most successful students from my high school class, if they had the choice, opted to participate in sports, music, and other extracurricular activities. Passionately. And it seemed to pay off regarding grades and, eventually, college and other post-secondary possibilities.

As a new school year creeps up, I’m crossing my fingers that our school will be able to connect with more disengaged students, whether it be with athletics, clubs, or other activities. In a roundabout way, I’m arguing for more opportunities and engagement in school, as high numbers of job-seeking teenagers might correlate to a high number of students fed up and bored with school.

Did you, or would you, encourage your child to get a part-time job during the school year?  Why or why not?  What am I missing in this argument? Why did or didn’t you work in high school?

Students, chime in too. What are you gaining or sacrificing while working?  Can you fit in work, school, and still get enough sleep?  Has your school work suffered because of work?  Why do you work?

10 thoughts on “Should High School Students Have Jobs?

  1. I am going to come at this from a parent viewpoint. We do not encourage our children to have a job during the school year. We consider their school to be their employment. However in the summer, we do encourage them to find some kind of employment.

    This being said, I have one son who is starting college this fall and we are encouraging him to find a part time job, because he needs to take on the responsibility of earning some money to pay for this extras.

    I have to add that we are fortunate to be in a place, where we can support our children. Not all families have this luxury.

  2. Love this post.

    It’s really about a lot of other things — how much we can imagine ourselves in a wider world, working, who will treat us seriously, who will reward us (well) for our skills.

    I worked as a part-time lifeguard through my Toronto high school in the mid 1970s. I didn’t really need the money, but I enjoyed having it. I got decent grades, was on the quiz bowl team two years in a row, and in guitar club and started and ran a high school newspaper…and got in/out of a highly competitive college.

    I think it’s also difficult for some teens to really see any meaningful connection between what they might be very good at and the “real world.” Unless you are interacting with adults (beyond authority figures) it’s hard to figure that out. I started freelance photography as a senior, but that was thanks to some great encouragement from a friend of my father. I think they need encouragement, feedback and direction.

    • “I think it’s also difficult for some teens to really see any meaningful connection between what they might be very good at and the “real world.”

      Caitlin, this is one of the toughest things about working at a “struggling” high school with disadvantaged kids. Each year, it seems like so many students pass through without any guidance or possibility of figuring out this connection. For this reason, it has been so exciting to see the student mentioned above shine so brightly after discovering a passion.

      • If my next book sells — and I’ll know within a month or so — I might like to interview you, if you’re up for it, to talk about this. One of the things I want to focus on is the huge disconnect between school and work…and why or how so many people end up in the wrong jobs, or failing in the ones they have. Can you email me?

  3. Wow, very interesting and timely topic since we are still working through so many issues from the Great Recession. I’m with Caitlin that this is about so many things – overarchingly about getting clear about how to make choices that will benefit you in the long run. Most adults have difficulty with this, let alone teens.

    I wanted a job to have some money as a teen, but found myself competing with out of work adults – and me with only babysitting skills. I also participated in extracurricular activities and so would have had to make a choice had I been successful in my job-hunt.

    My older son chose not to work during HS, and had little money as a result b/c I didn’t offer allowance (did have a list of paid extra jobs around the house). My younger son alternated working and sports. Both still struggle with getting more stable employment. And there is a school of thought that people who didn’t work during teen years are more likely to have periods of unemployment. Personally I think this goes back to my initial statement about figuring out how to determine beneficial activities rather than teen employment itself.

    Reading your blog, I think that your students are lucky to have such a thoughtful teacher – I gained a great deal from teachers like you back in my school days.

    • Thanks for the compliment Beth Anne!
      I’m intrigued by this statement: “And there is a school of thought that people who didn’t work during teen years are more likely to have periods of unemployment.”
      Do you have any articles or links following this idea? Would love to read more.

      • Shoot, I know that I have stumbled upon articles (most likely in the Chicago Tribune) at least twice, once this past spring that have implied/referenced back to attitude in not seeking teen jobs as culprit for later in life job struggles. I didn’t feel that they entirely made their point, but I’m afraid that I didn’t keep enough info to give you any reference.
        I think that too many are grasping at straws right now for so much of what ails us overall – teen issues, joblessness, etc.

  4. My only wisdom here is my own experience: my family was solidly middle class, and they expected me to work some (mostly during the summers, a bit during the school year) because real people worked, I should learn what it was like, and doing so would make me value the things the money bought me.

    That said, I wasn’t buying myself a car or phone. I saved up so I could go to the excellent boarding school (Interlochen Arts Academy) that was my ticket out of my hometown. MY parents wouldn’t let me go if I didn’t contribute. After that, I saved to buy myself a plane ticket to Japan so I could look for work there. I think that having to work for these was excellent, and made me value them all the more rather than being a rich kid whose parents served up such opportunities on a platter.

    None of this is to say that the kids you are describing should be working. I don’t know what range of incomes your students’ families have, but my objection is to wealthier families that don’t teach their kids how hard money is to come by, and just pay for all the fancy after-school lessons. I’m not sure being on the basketball team teaches one more than a well-chosen part-time job – I think the students on the basketball team or in orchestra are (often) also the students that are already advantaged in other ways, and this is why they excel.

    In short: maybe most of the students who do work shouldn’t, and most of those who don’t, should. But not more than 10 hours/week during the school year. What do you think?

    • Alan,
      Thanks for the detailed comment. I’m grateful to my parents for insisting I work to save money for spending cash during college and other expenses, because I did grow up comfortably. I probably didn’t need to work. I believe students are officially limited to 30 hours a week, and my main objection to students working so much is that they choose work and cell phone payments over involvement in a sport, club, activity, or even being able to attend tutoring to improve academic standing. It’s a shame, and in the long-term, I’m questioning how much the employment experience will benefit the students.

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