Teens trade lifeguard trunks for dotcom pay

On a cool summer morning earlier this month, Kirill Matusevich flung himself out of bed at 6:45 a.m., threw on a shirt and baggy shorts, and headed off to work.

It takes him more than an hour to ride the subway from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, to the Internet company he works for in Manhattan. He's used to it, however, since the office is not too far from his high school, where he'll be a sophomore next year.

"Teens used to always do the burger joint or lifeguard type of thing," Kirill says, "but now kids are working at these dotcom companies and actually contributing.... That American classic-style summer job, it's a good experience - but I would say this is the best experience for me."

While the top summer jobs for high-schoolers may still be burger-flipping or working as a cashier, a sizable number of tech-savvy teens have plunged headlong into the new economy, where "cool" describes sophisticated JavaScript rather than the latest polka-dot bikini. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that 120,000 US teens held computer-related jobs last year, up from 58,000 in 1996.

Who's guarding the pool?

One casualty of the ubiquitous flicker of computer screens may be lifeguarding, long a glamourous summer job for teens. From Jersey shores to Dallas poolsides, municipalities across the country are desperate to find summer help, since fewer teens are willing to don a whistle and slather sunblock on their noses.

Restaurants and souvenir shops, too, are having trouble finding young workers during these busy vacation months.

For some observers, this represents more than just a shift in the types of summer jobs some young people are willing to accept. Summer employment rates overall for teens have dropped to the lowest they've been in decades. Instead, SAT prep courses and academic summer camps are becoming more common, along with high-tech and other career-oriented summer internships.

"My general impression, not only from being an economist, but also as a parent who has raised two sons, is that kids are doing a lot more diverse range of things," says Ronald Bird, chief economist with the Employment Policy Foundation in Washington. "When I was growing up, it used to be cutting grass, working in the grocery store. Now there are other things more interesting that I never heard about growing up."

In previous decades, a job like stocking shelves or guarding a pool was considered a coming-of-age experience, where the job itself was not as important as the character it could build.

"There is a need, I think, for those abilities and skills that prepare you for a wide range of future possibilities as opposed to a more narrow focus," says Wayne Hill, a public relations executive in Ohio. In the 1960s, during his summer breaks from high school, Mr. Hill worked as a lifeguard and swimming instructor for the YMCA in Warwick, R.I.

"It was literally a ticket to the world for me," he says. "As a 16- or 17-year-old, trying to teach survival and swimming skills to that range of folks, I think it teaches an ability to adapt to varying circumstances. And it was a lot of fun, too."

A whole new pay scale

Yet in the present economy, the traditional summer jobs can't compete with the pay offered by dotcom and other high-tech firms. According to researchers at Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., an international outplacement firm, towns in Illinois were offering almost $12 an hour for unfilled beach patrol and maintenance jobs, and in Costa Mesa, Calif., summer recreation leaders and lifeguards could earn $13.

Northern Virginia high-tech firms, on the other hand, offer hundreds of jobs for high school students who can earn up to $20 per hour.

It's not just a matter of higher wages, however. For many teens and their parents, getting a head start in developing the real-world skills needed for the new economy is seen as an essential competitive edge. And companies, too, use their teen workers to gauge the pulse of youth culture.

As for Kirill, he finds work as fun as skateboarding or riding his BMX bike. After his long subway commute, he works 9 to 5 at Alloy Online, a youth-oriented company that sells clothing and provides a "Web community" where teens can interact online. When he gets to work, he puts on a CD, and surfs the Web to evaluate sites.

"We always make sure to have high school interns all year round," says Susan Kaplow, director of Internet development at Alloy. "They're our living, breathing barometers, and it's wonderful to actually have the kids here; they're completely matriculated in the working environment."

It's the kind of responsibility that Kirill finds appealing. "I also come up with ideas for advertising, and I can do whatever they ask me to do," he says. "It was so good to see that I could put my ideas and my abilities to use, and people will listen. I get to see what life is really like later on. I'd rather try this kind of experience first, and then I can see what I want to do with my life."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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