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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 Christina McCarrollStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 24, 2002



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

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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.

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.

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