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Wanted: Summer jobs for youth

Ann Collman gardens at the Markusens. Photo courtesy Ann Markusen

Are you, or did you, work summers during high school? At home, for neighbors or local businesses?

Summer work is a great prep for joining the labor force later. It's a good way to sample different kinds of jobs and learn how variable bosses and working challenges can be.

In 2013-14, I worked as the lead researcher and testimony shaper for the Minnesota House's Select Committee on Living Wage Jobs. At inaugural session, our chairman, Rep. Ryan Winkler, asked each of the other six members to reflect on their first job. Every one of them had worked during or between high school years — one at a Dairy Queen, another for his dad's small business, another at yard work, another as grocery stocker. All of them spoke to the surprises and learning they'd encountered.

But jobs for youth have become harder to find, despite lower unemployment rates. During our hearings, we learned from the State's Labor Economist, Steve Hine, that teen employment in Minnesota fell from 64 percent in 2001 to 45 percent in 2012. Teen unemployment rates skyrocketed, too. Teens searching for work but unable to find jobs rose from 8 percent in 2002 to 18 percent in 2012.

My first job, not counting babysitting (where the bosses are mainly absent), was at a Perkins in St. Louis Park near my home. I wasn't a waitress, but set the tables and brought the water glasses, five at a time. Most gruesome was my Sunday morning stint filling syrup pitchers. They came to me covered with sugar, and I poured blueberry, apricot or fake maple syrup into each before they ran through the dishwasher. I returned home with sticky hair, forearms and clothing. I don't remember the boss. But I learned from the waitresses as we drank coffee in the back room during short breaks. Their low wages, how hard they work, how obnoxious some customers can be, especially evenings when some would arrive drunk.

For most of a decade, I've been hiring high schoolers during the summers: my husband's twin sister Pat's granddaughters, Amber, Josie and Marisa from Cloquet, followed by Ann Collman of Prairie Lake, and most recently, Cromwell's Jen Koenig, Bailey Gronner and Amber and Brandi Collman.

When first hired, I ask them to read a written contract that details my responsibilities to them and theirs to me. I do this to model the relationship between employer and employee: the expectations for each of us and the need for communication. We talk compensation, too.

The girls accomplish many chores in these half-days. Dishes, laundry, dusting, watering plants, cooking, veggie gardening and weeding, pruning trees, mowing grass, cleaning windows, putting up screens, washing cars and interiors, pasting items into scrapbooks. It's my job to lay out the tasks and adjust for the weather. We are flexible about vacations, doctors' appointments, and athletics — both theirs and mine.

It's legal to hire teens age 14 and older in Minnesota. The state restricts the numbers of hours to be worked. During the school year, large employers with sales exceeding $500,000 annually are prohibited from allowing minors younger than age 16 to work past 7 p.m., work more than three hours a day or more than 18 hours a week. You can check the details at dli.mn.gov/LS/Pdf/youthrules.pdf.

My fellow University of Minnesota economist colleague, Deborah Levison, taught me about the heated debate in the international development community over whether kids should work. She's writing a book on the subject based on her research in Latin America, North America and Asia. She counters the view that child labor is always exploitation and demonstrates the positive aspects of children working alongside their parents. She argues that the values and skills learned through working can complement formal education.

It's long been my dream that our high schools would run weekly sessions for high school students on the ample range of occupations they might prepare for and choose among. Mostly, our young people learn about work from watching their parents, observing other adults first-hand — especially teachers, but also nurses, doctors and sales clerks — and TV, which leans heavily towards police, doctors, lawyers and celebrity performers.

Yet in our communities, men and women labor at an extraordinary range of occupations. Hearing from them, one by one, on how they came to such work, the skills needed, working conditions, pay, job security, commuting requirements and job satisfaction would help our teens prepare better for the wide world of work and make better schooling choices.

Meanwhile, how about employing a teen or two in your home or workplace?

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