High School Kids, Get a Job: Today’s high school students are less employed than their parents’ generation, but not for lack of trying.

May, 2019

At 15, Aiden Groff is itching to get a foot in the entry-level door of the working world. He ponders his options, while his resume sits on the coffee table with his dad’s suggestions scrawled in the margins. After six months of seeing his son drop in at grocery stores, craft stores and fast food restaurants with applications in hand and dwindling optimism, Aiden’s dad Ron thought he could use a little help. He’s hoping the new draft will finally get his son a callback.

Besides helping with Aiden’s resume, Ron also accompanies his son pounding the pavement for opportunities.

“We try to recommend some places that [Aiden] could apply. As we stop in at stores or talk to people, I’ll ask if they’re hiring and what the criteria are so I’ll know if he can apply.”

So far, there hasn’t been much luck. Aiden is just one of today’s youth straddling the unstable landscape of teen employment. Statistics Canada reports that over the last several decades, employment rates for youths aged 15–19 in Canada have dropped by nearly 10 per cent. In Alberta, the plunge is closer to 20. Economic recession, the introductions of a carbon tax and a rising minimum wage has carved a massive fissure in what was solid ground only a generation ago. As a result, today’s high school students have steeper mountains to climb than their parents did as teens looking for work.

More Money, More Problems

In the past ten years, minimum wage in Alberta has nearly doubled—the most recent hike from $13.60 to $15 was implemented last October. Fry that up with a handful of carbon tax and reduced restrictions on holiday pay, and you’ve got a significant cost increase for business owners.

Bruce Wilde, owner of the Swiss Chalet franchise in St. Albert, is one of many business owners feeling the effects of rising minimum wage.

“It’s impacted hiring anyone,” he says. “There are people that can’t justify paying a 14-year old $15, when they can hire someone who can work full time, and isn’t restricted by hours.”

To restaurateurs like Wilde, flexibility is imperative, and not always on the menu for young applicants. Alberta labour laws limit the types of jobs employees under the age of 16 can work, and the hours they can work them. Youths under the age of 15 can’t work past 9 p.m., which is a problem from businesses like Swiss Chalet that stay open until 10 p.m. or later. And with the increased cost of employment hitting businesses hard, employers have to choose their hires more carefully. Then there are those other after-hour elements in a teen’s life that come into play, from soccer practice to music lessons to simply hanging out with peers. While those activities are undoubtedly important in a youth’s development, they’re also obstacles to employment.

“When someone’s 15, their priorities are their friends and having fun,” Wilde says. Adults, on the other hand, have landlords banging down their doors for rent checks and vehicle payments accruing interest by the day. The nagging necessity to make a paycheck translates into an employee more likely to show up on time for every shift and stick around for the long haul.

“It’s completely different when someone needs to work,” adds Wilde.

This employer logic is all too familiar to Aiden. “I’ve tried looking at a lot of places but usually they don’t hire teenagers,” he says, adding most employers tell him they hire workers around 17 or 18 years old. His top choice, McDonald’s, has turned him down twice because of his age.

Twenty-five years ago when Aiden’s dad looked for his first job, he doesn’t recall meeting the same resistance. But back then, Alberta had a tiered minimum wage system, allowing businesses to employ youth at a lower rate.

“I don’t remember getting turned away from applying a lot of places,” says Ron. “Being 14 years old, I actually was paid below the normal minimum wage, which was $5 at the time. But if you were under 16, they were allowed to pay you $4.50 an hour.”

Wilde thinks bringing back a youth wage could help temper rising teen unemployment by cutting down on labour costs. Teens, in turn, would reap the rewards of entry level experience with a paycheck to boot.

Same Story—Different Decade

Bill Turnham, the Off-Campus, Dual Credit, and Continuing Education Coordinator at Bellerose High School, has noticed students have become hungrier for employment—especially compared to his own teen years. In his time at the school.

 “If I think back to my youth, there wasn’t necessarily a need or a demand to work,” says Turnham, who’s been organizing the school’s Registered Apprenticeship Program (RAP) and youth work experience for 16 years.

“Historically, a lot of work experience was a volunteer experience that you would do for the remuneration of credit and building the work ethic. Now, it seems there’s a shift and those things are perhaps a little bit secondary.”

The reason? Life is more expensive for teens today. Factor in the demand for teen essentials like cell phones, laptops and video games, and add them to the same list their parents once had: clothes, car insurance and impending tuition fees. And those are more expensive
as well.

“The desire to obtain a paycheck is stronger now than it was before,” says Turnham. “[Working during high school] provides both some experience for your resume, but also life experience.”

Working students spend their leisure time developing long-term soft skills, like communication and dealing with difficult people, with the added responsibilities of managing their finances and being accountable for setting their own schedules. They can also quit asking mom and dad for money every time they want a Slurpee.

“At this point in time I don’t really care where I work,” says Aiden. “I just want a job because then I can actually have money to spend on things.”

Help from The Cloud

Considering today’s teen demographic, also dubbed iGen, is the most wired generation of our time, it stands to reason that additional help is available on the very digital network that defines them. Obligingly, many big box stores have made the switch to online applications, offering teens the chance to apply for jobs without their age being the first thing an employer sees. Winners is one business making use of this method.

“It used to be that they had to come into the store and drop off their applications in-person,” says Natalia Padayas, a Winners store manager. “And we would see the applicant. Now it’s all online.”

With online applications, candidates aren’t seen in person until the interview, at which stage, they’ve already proven they have something the business needs. For Padayas and many other retail managers, that’s availability.

Retail stores like Winners have their peak times during evenings and weekends, and need more staff to cover those shifts than on weekdays. Since those are the time slots high school students are looking to fill—and since most retailers aren’t open past 9:00 p.m.—the partnership is a natural one. The fit not only means that most of Padayas’ staff consist of iGen youths, it also distinguishes the retail industry as one of the primary source
of youth employment in Alberta.

The Future is Friendly

With today’s youth facing a different set of challenges entering the workforce than their parents did, they can use all the help they can get.

Resources like high school youth work experience programs help set kids up for success in the workplace by placing them with partnering businesses willing to invest in their training and skill-development. With the work experience program at Bellerose, Turnham helps students with applications and resume development. The program also acts as a broker between students and employees, offering support to both parties throughout the experience.

Turnham encourages employers to think about youth as potential long-term assets. “When you hire a student, you’re giving somebody who’s brand new to the word of work an opportunity to learn,” he says.

It’s Turnham’s belief that businesses with the ability to train and mentor youth have an opportunity to help a teen hone the skills that particular business needs most. And in his experience, high school students are more than willing to become an asset to a business and buy passionately into the work culture. But first they need the chance.

“There’s always a risk because students are still learning; they’re likely to make a few more mistakes than someone whose had more experience,” he says. “But we were all there once, too. And someone had to give us our first shot.”

Aiden’s desire to work may not be driven by an impending utilities bill, but he isn’t giving up on the hunt anytime soon. The teen plans to type up a revised draft of his resume and apply at McDonald’s again when he turns 16. Maybe someone will take a chance on him then. t8n

So How Do I Get a job?

Access resources set up for youth

Tap into your parents’ experiences, or seek out help from a high school guidance counsellor or local youth program. They can help you determine what to include in your resume and cover letter, and pass on their years of job-hunting wisdom.

Do your research

Use that iPhone to find out which companies have values around youth employment or first-time employees. Find out the labour laws that apply to your age, and look for jobs that fit. For example, save the car wash application until you’re over 15 — youths under the age of 14 aren’t permitted to work near moving vehicles.

Take initiative

Whether you’re applying for your first part-time job as a hostess, or are moving up the ladder in a corporate career, business owners want to see that you want the job. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there; if you don’t hear from them in a couple of weeks, call them back!

Think about trades

Many high schools offer students the chance to get involved in trades through the Registered Apprenticeship Program (RAP). Through RAP, youths choose from approximately 50 trades in Alberta and learn the ropes from a skilled tradesperson. Students earn high school credits, a paycheque and begin moving towards a journeyman certificate. It’s a high school job with a profitable end game.

Age Discrimination: What You Should Know

The Alberta Human Rights Act protects prospective employees from being discriminated against based on their age, with one catch: you have to be 18 for that section of the Act to apply. Minors protected from discrimination in every other area laid out in the Act—like race, religion, gender and disability —can still be turned away from a job in favour of an older employee. And because there are specific labour laws that apply to youth under 12, youths aged 13–14 and youths aged 15–17, employers are entitled to ask candidates their age if it’s relevant to the job.

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