Beyond babysitting

In this summer's tight job market, some youths may revert to traditional tasks. But those who have tasted entrepreneurial success will likely push for more creative work.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Looking for a preteen to mow your lawn this summer? Stumbling down suburban streets in search of a 50-cent lemonade?

In recent years, that search has been tough. The '90s dotcom boom, with its burgeoning computer jobs and inflated pay, created a trickledown demand that raised youths' expectations and drew many away from traditional tasks such as yardwork and babysitting.

With a shortage of workers and an abundance of office work and programming opportunities, some kids were suddenly reeling in cash.

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A handful of preteens and young teens found themselves in demand for all kinds of service jobs – and even high-tech work – as the 20-somethings ahead of them went into career overdrive.

So now, with the bubble long burst – and teen unemployment at a five-year high – will youths get back behind the Weed Whackers? Not necessarily.

Although leaner times may have restored humility to some young hotshots, experts say kids' job expectations remain high. That appears to be giving rise to a more tempered brand of entrepreneur – one that may value creativity over raw capitalism.

Take Melody Moher of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., who launched her business, Beautiful Braids & Beads by Melody, at age 10, with her parents' support.

After spending $20 in birthday money to have her hair braided and beaded while on vacation at a Florida beach, she realized she could start a similar business herself.

So she began peddling her braiding prowess at local arts and crafts shows as soon as she got home – and made $80 at her first fair. Soon, she was a regular at a Thursday night marina art show.

Now, at age 16, Melody has four employees, regular poolside spots at two Singer Island resorts, and a mutual fund. On a good day, she reels in $500. She says that far from being a hindrance, her youth helped her get started.

"I was so young when I went to the resort [that] they just thought it was really cool that such a young person had a business," she says. This year, she won a $2,000 scholarship from Guardian Life Insurance for her entrepreneurship.

Melody doesn't see herself braiding and beading forever. But she's confident she'll quickly expand "to select hotels by the beach on Singer Island."

That free-spirited ambition, says Steven Rothberg, president and founder of online job board CollegeRecruiter.com, remains vigorous among today's youths – and the shift is philosophical as much as economic. "More [adults] today see themselves as ... free agents," he says, "and kids pick up on it."

Indeed, Melody's parents bolstered her self-image as an entrepreneur, and her mother modeled ventures of her own. At Melody's first art show, Mom was there, too, selling handcrafted sachets. "In the beginning," says Melody, "it was really important that my parents were there. I talked about it with my dad, how it would be really great to open the business up more and go to a hotel, and my dad kept encouraging me."

A broadening range of job options

The self-employed can earn a certain flexibility. But for those hoping to get creative while in somebody else's employ – a route that often promises a more predictable paycheck – federal labor laws loom large.

The Department of Labor and the International Mass Retail Association teamed up last week to launch YouthRules! (www.youthrules.gov), a nationwide campaign to highlight job opportunities for youths. It also will reinforce labor guidelines.

Until they turn 14, kids' job options are limited to paper routes, farm work, acting, or working in their family businesses.

Still, signs point to a broadening of options: In Illinois, the Darien Youth Club was facing a possible penalty of over $500,000 for hiring 12- and 13-year-olds as umpires for children's pony baseball games, failing to collect work permits for 14- and 15-year olds, and making some accounting glitches.

The Department of Labor and the youth club are now in settlement proceedings. But in the meantime, the state legislature has passed bills that exempt park districts and some not-for-profit youth clubs from federal regulations requiring workers to be 14. Darien Youth Club president Ray Jablonski expects Illinois Governor George Ryan to sign the bills – and has planned a ceremony to celebrate on July 10.

Current federal laws do leave plenty of wiggle room for under-the-table jobs, and regulations against using hazardous machinery don't faze kids pushing lawnmowers or baking their own bread.

Underage compensation can often be "negotiated." Those Darien parents, for example, kept tips flowing in order to keep their youngest umpires on the field. More than 25 of them have stayed, and succeeded.

"They do pretty well considering how young they are," says Mr. Jablonski. "They live up to their responsibility, and they're always in charge out there."

Kids just shy of 14 may also enjoy hefty perks along with tips and tax-free cash. Joyce Chang, a 13-year-old from Sunnyvale, Calif., is working this summer as a counselor at a Chinese-English camp she attended for the past five years.

In addition to her $100 weekly "gift," Joyce looks forward to months of free food, arts and crafts, and $200 gift certificates to stores such as the Wherehouse and the Gap. But this is by no means her first paid job: Since third grade, she's been a tutor, charging up to $20 an hour.

Falling back on traditional work

Of course, with the preteen employment climate clouding, $20-an-hour jobs may be harder to come by. And those throwback jobs, like lawn mowing or becoming a "mother's helper," have become fallbacks. Since the tech sector tumbled, even some Internet-savvy kids have broken out the gardening shears.

Two years ago, says Mr. Rothberg of CollegeRecruiter.com, "it was very difficult to sell a preteen on the idea of mowing lawns or babysitting."

But this summer, those jobs may suddenly seem palatable again. College students are snapping up the retail jobs that once went to high schoolers, and high school students are taking work that, a few years ago, went to preteens – stocking shelves and delivering fliers.

Ultimately, say experts, the job itself may be less important than the simple act of working with others. And youths in this era of self-invention have to go through the same process as adults to determine their priorities.

That's the case for Joyce. Though she hears a lot about preteen "geniuses starting businesses," her own priority, once she turns 14, is that her work "be relaxing – so that I can enjoy it and meet new people."

She's planning a stint at a bookstore, or at the local Bath & Body Works. "There's a lot of responsibility in starting your own business," she explains, "and I don't want all that pressure."

How work rules apply to teens

The technicalities of child labor are a maze of allowable hours, accounting, and rules.

Until you're 18, and unless you're working on a farm, hazardous jobs – such as building houses, working in mines, baking, or using heavy machines – are off limits.

Regulations for farm work are a bit looser, but for the most part, until they turn 14, kids in search of paychecks must stick to paper routes, acting, working in their family's business, or, oddly, gathering evergreens for homemade wreaths

Even when they hit age 14, federal regulations restrict their hours: no more than three hours on a school day, 18 hours in a school week, or 8 hours on a weekend day, and no work before 7 a.m. or after 7 p.m. From June 1 through Labor Day, the rules let up a bit, and kids can stay on the job until 9 p.m.

If you're a teenager or preteen working on a farm, the options are more expansive.

At 16 years old, you can perform essentially any job to your heart's or your wallet's content.

Fourteen- and 15-year-olds can work in nonhazardous jobs outside of school hours, and 12- and 13-year-olds can do the same, with their parents' consent.

Kids under age 12 can work on their parents' farms or, with permission, do nonhazardous work on farms not covered by minimum-wage requirements.

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