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When I think back to my childhood summers, I remember pool parties, watermelon on the deck, and trips to the Connecticut Shore and Cape Cod. But while summers were a time for fun and family, they were also a time for work. Many of my most discussed and most defining memories center around my first teen summer jobs. I learned more about life and work ethic there than I ever did in school. In my mind, you turn 16 (or 14-15, if you’re like me and had the ability to work on a farm) and you get a job.
So, imagine my surprise when a recent USA TODAY article revealed the waning prevalence of the teen summer job. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 43% of teenagers had a job last summer. Down from the peak of 72% in 1978. In the article, an 18-year-old high school graduate said, “I chose to go to summer school because I wanted more experience.” More and more teenagers are focusing on school, even in the summer, over work experience. In my opinion, this will only set them back.
What I learned from working summer jobs as a teen
My main summer job through my teenage years was working as a farm hand at a local tobacco farm. After my first year there, a rainy season with somewhat unpredictable hours, I picked up second part-time jobs in following summers to protect my income. I worked at a cashier at a Walgreens and as a cater waiter for a local event center.
These jobs taught me a lot, particularly tobacco farming which I would go on to write my college essay about and discuss at length in my Wall Street internship interviews.* I didn’t learn astrophysics, how to value a stock or differential calculus, but I learned a lot of things no one could have taught me in school. So, to inspire parents to continue to encourage the teen summer job, I wanted to share some things I learned from my first tastes of employment.
*I also discuss the farm anytime the topic of smoking or chewing tobacco comes up. How multiple times a day I would peel black tar from my hands and how just the contact with the leaves left my fingernails dyed yellow and brown all summer. Not something you really want to inhale into your lungs.
1 – Labor teaches the value of hard work, but it wouldn’t make an easy life
I can remember my father talking about his summer jobs washing 18-wheeler rigs for his friend’s dad and stacking pressure treated lumber starting when I was maybe eight years old. He and my mother were big proponents of my brother and I having at least one summer of a hard labor job. No folding shirts at the mall, no caddying at the local golf course. We were going to get our hands dirty.
So, when I turned 15 and heard my neighbor was working at a local tobacco farm for a starting wage of over $9 an hour, I jumped at the opportunity. Good money? Working with friends? I was in. Tobacco farming meant everything from planting to tying, winding, hoeing, picking and hanging it in the barn to dry. We worked from 6 am until the day’s tasks were done or the sun was setting. It was hard work, and I should have hated it.
The thing was, I kind of loved it. My brother, when he was old enough and joined me, loved it too. There was something fantastic about working with the earth and being dog tired at the end of each day. There was pride in getting better and better at a task. And there was some odd, satisfying feeling of jumping in the shower at the end of each day and watching the water wash off a thick layer of dirt.
But even as a teenager, I knew a life as a laborer would make for years of strain. It meant my work hours were based on the weather and I could easily face a week without pay. My muscles were so exhausted at the end of each day that I mostly showered, ate, and went to bed before the next day. I was visiting a lifestyle that leaves 50-year-olds with chronic back problems and gnarled hands. A good and honest life, but by no means an easy one. I’ve never asked, but I think this was the lesson my parents were looking for me to learn.
2 – Independence is a mighty good feeling
I’ll never forget being handed my first paycheck. Payday on the farm was Friday and, as we stood dirty and exhausted, the owner would hand out our checks. (While asking if we were available to work that weekend, of course.) In the past, I had made money from babysitting and little side jobs, but nothing consistent. This check was the biggest I had ever received, and it was crystal clear in my mind that that money was mine.
I’ve never been someone who likes to be beholden to anyone else. I rarely asked my parents for money and had few material wants. Getting that paycheck and knowing that I had earned it and that it was now mine to do with as I pleased was eye opening. It was my first taste of true independence. I could save it, spend it, forget to deposit the check (no way that was happening) and it was nobody’s business but my own. The next morning, I went to the bank and learned how to fill out a deposit slip. My real lessons in money management had begun.
As a teenager, we all feel like adults. We crave independence and respect from our parents. But it is hard to claim your adulthood while asking mom for ice cream and gas money. Without a job, you’re dependent. No denying it. It’s probably part of the reason why money is such a source of tension with kids and their parents.
The benefit of a summer job is that it gives you the chance to get your independence training wheels. An opportunity to test your money management skills, determine your financial values, and make mistakes while you still have a safety net. And I’m sorry, summer school and an allowance just aren’t the same.
3 – What it means to make a real commitment
The summer when I was 16 I took a second job working part-time as a Walgreens cashier in addition to my work on the farm. The summer before we had seen a lot of rain and I didn’t make the money I expected. This evening job was a way to ensure I had some income, regardless of weather.
As life would have it, we didn’t have a lot of rain that summer. I was on the farm, home to shower, then off to Walgreens a few nights a week. My bank account had never looked better, but I didn’t exactly have a robust social life. More than once my parents suggested I could quit the Walgreens job. But I felt like I made a commitment, and I had to stick to it.
Then one night, my parents picked me up from Walgreens at closing time with a surprise. They had bought Dave Matthews tickets for me and a friend for the next night! Having heard that I had friends going and wanted to go, they wanted to treat me. My response? “But I just agreed to cover someone’s shift tomorrow night, I can’t go.”
I was choked up. I wanted so badly to go and was so thankful for the tickets. But the manager had just told me they didn’t have anyone else and could I help her out. I had agreed moments before, and I didn’t want to back out. After much discussion, with my father advocating for me to just quit the job, they took my brother. I spent the next night checking out customers who were getting snacks and heading to the concert. It was gut wrenching and was hard to even wear the t-shirt my brother had brought me back.
But over a decade later, it is one of the teenage decisions I look back at with the most pride. I learned the value of my word and that being a person who sticks to their commitments means doing so even when it is hard. And now, with more maturity and experience, I look back and see one of the first moments when I learned that if I wanted to be an adult, I to determine and defend my own values. My parents gave me a “get out of jail free card, ” but I knew that regardless of what they thought, I’d be disappointed in myself for backing out on my employer. I didn’t want to be that person, nd I took one step closer to adulthood by recognizing that.
4 – A real leader trains and trusts their people, they don’t boss them
One summer, I became a team leader for the barn during picking season. This meant I earned $0.50 more an hour and was in charge of keeping my sewing machine running (the machine that tied the tobacco up into the barn to dry), managing breaks for a group of about 8, and keeping damage to the tobacco leaves low.
That summer, I had a young girl on my team who was molasses slow. I knew the other people doing her job had shown her what to do, but she became a bottleneck on our team and I was constantly on her to hurry up. The more she hurried, the messier her work became and it made it even harder to stay on pace. This hold up quickly made her an unpopular character in the barn and I could see her dislike of the work growing, which didn’t exactly help her improvement.
A few days into the operation, we had a strong picking day and my side of the barn had boxes piled back out the door. The tobacco couldn’t sit picked in the sun and we couldn’t go home until the crop was hung to dry. The owner came in to see what was happening. When I explained the holdup, she did an amazing thing. She took over my position sewing for a string and told me to spend the time with this employee showing her how it is done.
For a little over a half an hour, the employee and I practiced. I showed her the safest way to hold the leaves, and how to pick up sets at a time instead of individual leaves. Then I told her why her job was a crucial part of the operation and why we were so precise about what we needed her to do. She got better. She was never the fastest one, but if I let her know when she was doing things well and did simple things like make sure she had someone to sit with for lunch, she kept improving.
This is a really long-winded way of saying, I learned the responsibilities of a leader that summer. I could have kept snapping at that girl all summer with my best boss-voice. I honestly probably would have if the owner hadn’t stopped in that day. But we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. I had to step back and take the time to train her and make her feel like part of the team. She needed feedback, not criticism, and if I wanted to stay a team lead I needed to be mature enough to give it.
5 – I was born with privilege
For me, tobacco was a summer job. A part-time stop on the road to college and a career. But it wasn’t like that for everyone I worked with. On the farm, there was a staff of seasonal workers from Jamaica. They came for the tobacco season, then stayed for the fall on the apple farms before heading home. Through the summer they lived in a bunkhouse on the farm.
Getting to know these men was amazing. They were here sending money home to their families for their children’s school and living expenses. They shared how this farm work was more than they could make doing almost any other job at home. Just listening to them talk you heard how much they missed their wives and kids, but being away for six months of the year was their only way to give their families opportunities. One man was so proud to tell us all how he was paying for his daughter was graduating college and that he would be working a few more summers to help put her through dental school.
You couldn’t work side-by-side with these men for weeks without recognizing the privilege it is just to be born in the U.S., never mind being born to an upper-middle-class family. I worked those hours knowing I’d graduate high school and be off to college. I dreamed of corner offices and entrepreneurship. The simple fact that I had options was my privilege. Something I had never thought to question before.
My small worldview as a teenager from a predominately white, New England town was widened for the first time. I valued my opportunities more. I saw a bigger picture. And, most importantly, I started a never-ending quest to make fewer assumptions and judgments about others when I don’t know their circumstances.
The summer of hard labor will live on for my son
So, as the world seems to grow more focused on SAT scores, AP tests, and college applications with every passing year, I know my son will not spend his teen summers in a classroom. My parents’ rule will live on. His first teen job will be a summer of hard labor, full time. If he wants to start a business or take easier jobs after that, it’s up to him. But I’ll never pretend that my husband and I, or a classroom, have the ability to teach him everything he needs to know to be an independent, responsible adult. And who knows, maybe he’ll still be talking about it years later.
Do you expect your kids to work summer jobs as teenagers? Did you work as a teen, and if so, what did you learn? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Hi, I’m Chelsea! I’m the founder of Mama Fish Saves and I’m almost embarrassingly passionate about reducing money stress for moms. As an ex-hedge fund investor, I’m an investment pro. I’m also a certified National Financial Education Instructor, mom to two hilarious young boys, and wife to my amazing husband (who’s a stay-at-home dad!). Let’s do great things together!