BOSTON — Let's face it. Being a middle-schooler and looking for work can be like trying to empty a bathtub with a teaspoon: frustrating and time-consuming. Last July, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, teen employment peaked at about 8.6 million jobs for kids age 16 to 19. But that doesn't account for throngs of teens who are eager to earn money but are still under the legal working age of 14.
The time-honored approach is to hawk lawn-cutting expertise or hang out an odd-jobs shingle. But before young Johnny asks the neighbor for that much-needed hedge trim or to water the dahlias, you should consider his interests, says Barbara Schneider, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago. Paper routes, baby-sitting, and dog-walking can be good start-up jobs, but parents and kids should think about more than simply financial rewards, says Ms. Schneider, who is co-director of the Alfred P. Sloan Center of Family, Child, and Work.
In her book, "The Ambitious Generation: America's Teenagers Motivated but Directionless," Ms. Schneider says being treated as laborers builds little commitment to work and its setting and, in fact, may give adolescents the wrong idea about the workplace.
"Parents [and teens] should talk about interests and passions," says Schneider. If the teen is interested in photography, he or she should inquire at a photography studio. If kids like animals, they should ask about becoming an assistant at a kennel.
"Parents need to think about what kind of skills the child will be gaining, what are the consequences for the future," says Schneider.
But the first forays into the job market can be daunting for a young teen. Kathy Borman, an anthropology professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, says much depends on the local job market.
"Youth jobs, for the most part, are the ones nobody wants," says Ms. Borman.
Borman says finding employment often depends on who you know. "Word-of-mouth is a great way," she says.
City public-works programs, the local library, and the YMCA are good places to start the job hunt, she says.
Parents should be involved in the decision, too -paying attention to hours worked and how their child will get to and from the job.