Teen Jobs: How Much Is Too Much?

Although employment improves confidence and responsibility, recent studies indicate some pitfalls

It's a classic parent-teen conflict: whether teenagers should get jobs. Derek McDonald, a high school senior in Phoenix, wants to continue working about 30 hours a week as a telemarketing supervisor so he can keep up payments on his 1986 Ford Bronco.

But his parents worry that Derek's long hours are hurting his school work.

"Since he started to work, his grades are getting lower," says his mother, Lupe McDonald. "Sometimes he doesn't have enough time to do homework. But all his friends work, and he wants to also."

Millions of students like Derek spend their afternoons, evenings, and weekends in jobs that include flipping burgers, selling clothes, and baby-sitting. Many of these jobs offer adolescents more than extra spending money - they also teach responsibility, how to budget time and money, and offer a bridge to the worlds of college and career.

But recent research suggests some teens may be working to exhaustion. These studies conclude that working part time can reduce students' academic performance, create undue stress and fatigue, and increase cigarette, alcohol, and marijuana use.

"We see this really clear relationship where 20 or more hours per week is not a good idea," says Michael Resnick, a professor of public health and pediatrics at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. "It interferes with the task of being a kid and student." Mr. Resnick co-wrote a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which found that nearly 1 in every 5 high school students is working at least 20 hours a week.

Too much work can leave students exhausted and irritable, he says. Often their jobs are boring, he says, making them frustrated and cynical about future careers.

In addition, the more time teens spend in the workplace, the more likely they are to imitate the actions of their co-workers, including drinking and smoking, says Jeylan Mortimer, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota, and author of the 1996 book "Adolescents, Work and Family."

Students often feel caught in a tug of war between their jobs and classwork. Lee Goins of Monroe, Ga., worked bagging groceries during high school but quit. "He came to us and said he didn't have time to study or have a social life," says his mother, Lynne Goins. His parents agreed and decided not to let any of their three children work during the school year, she says.

Teens have always worked, helping out on family farms and filling the factories of the Industrial Revolution. In the first half of the 20th century, however, the percentage of teens in the labor force dropped rapidly. Youths spent more time in school as the demand for cheap, unskilled labor declined and child-labor laws went into effect. By 1940, fewer than 3 percent of US high school students were working while in school, according to Ellen Greenberger and Laurence Steinberg, authors of the 1986 book "When Teenagers Work."

But after World War II, the number of working teens soared in the US. This American emphasis on working students contrasts with most other industrial countries, where the worlds of work and school are considered separate, the authors say.

'A positive experience'

Government programs over the last two decades have encouraged students to find part-time work. These jobs can help students, many high school counselors say. "Overall, I think it's a positive experience because they learn responsibility, they learn to deal with adults in a more direct, mature way, and they also learn to budget time and money," says Paul Cleary, college and career consultant at William Fremd High School in suburban Chicago.

Jobs often give students a feeling of independence and pride, says Terry Stevig, head of the guidance department at Wauconda High School in northern Illinois. Without the job, they would be spending their time hanging out on the streets, Mr. Stevig says. "A number of kids who don't do well in school thrive in a job," he says.

Andy Theodore agrees. The senior at Evanston Township High School in suburban Chicago works 30 hours a week sweeping sidewalks, trimming hedges, and making repairs for a real estate firm. He says he often feels bored and frustrated in class. At his job, he can see immediate results and feel he is helping people. "It's good money and it's satisfying work," he says. "It makes you feel good about yourself."

But students who work long hours don't have as much time for homework or clubs, sports, and other extracurricular activities. Stevig, who coaches Wauconda's soccer team, has seen players leave practice early so they can get to their jobs on time.

Sometimes parents put the brakes on how many hours their children work. Thomas and Margarita Lang of Phoenix think it's great their sophomore daughter, Jessica, wants to work on weekends and summers to earn extra money. But they are concerned that a weeknight job will hurt her ability to get good grades, do volunteer work, and participate in sports and clubs. "Working over the weekends is not too bad," Mrs. Lang says, "but during the week it's hard. We think it'll interfere with school."

Limiting hours is the key, says Julia Ferguson, a junior at Evanston High School near Chicago. Julia works six hours a week doing clerical work, leaving plenty of time for the pompom squad, friends, and a prep class for college entrance exams. "I like how it's only two hours a day so I can do my schoolwork afterward," she says.

Some students such as Julia use their earnings for college, or to help out their families. But research shows most students are using their income to buy clothes, music, and gadgets. "They want the Nike sneaker for $150," Stevig observes. "They want all the brand clothes and a car."

But what do they gain?

Joel Milgram, an education professor at the University of Cincinnati, wonders how many useful skills students really learn at their jobs. Instead of sweeping floors, they should be spending time in school developing the skills they'll need for the high-tech job market of the future, he says. "It's hard to do well in school when you spend four hours every night as a cashier," he says.

Teens from upper-income families that don't need the extra cash are just as likely to be working as those from poorer families, Mr. Milgram says. Students who need the jobs most in the inner cities and rural areas don't have ready access to the growing job markets in the suburbs, he says.

For some of these students, a part-time job can offer a boost up the career ladder. Despite the potential drawbacks, high school jobs can help teens once they move into the working world, says Professor Mortimer in Minnesota. "Those who work more during high school have a greater ease in joining the full-time labor force and increasing their earnings," she says.

Part-time jobs can teach students useful skills such as working with computers, says Kathryn Borman, an anthropology professor at the University of South Florida who is writing a study on preparing teens for the adult world. But those kinds of good jobs for students are hard to come by, she says.

American businesses have urged schools to teach better job skills, but most companies haven't been creative at giving students good working experiences, Ms. Borman says. Businesses need to do a better job connecting with high schools and community groups to create meaningful job experiences for students, she says. "There needs to be a better way for adolescents to move through that maze to the working world."

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