The Extinction of the Summer Job

I’ve read several articles of late discussing the decline in the number of older high school and college students that take jobs for the summer. Each of these reflected on how summer employment taught millions of Americans their first work habits.

Lifeguard poolAround 30% of students now seek summer employment. That is half the pre-recession level. While I’m sure that some don’t work simply because their Boomer parents or grandparents have enough money to support their leisure activities, many are doing other things to prepare for life. Unpaid internships serve just as well as entry-level job training. Volunteer community service can teach life lessons that are every bit as good, and probably better, than shaking French fries into a paper bag. What looks stronger on an application; a summer with Burger Buddy or one with Habitat for Humanity?

Of course, the “Summer in Europe” has become a hallmark of comfortable middle class. Parents recall their summers in hot factories or mowing lawns and take pride in saving their children from such experience by providing what is undeniably an educational alternative. Most of us can’t afford the graduation “Grand Tour” of nobility past, but four weeks of a group package tour is a close approximation.

The decline in Summer employment isn’t entirely due to more attractive options. The thinning of middle class jobs (more on that next week) has moved millions of workers into lower-wage hourly jobs that don’t provide paid vacation, and the resulting openings for temporary replacements. Kids between semesters are now competing with full-time adults for positions.

Similarly, the simpler repetitive jobs, especially in manufacturing, have either been replaced by technology or shipped overseas. Those that are left require too much training to waste it on a short-term worker.

Summer jobs were either for spending money or educational expenses. Spending money has changed as a concept. When I grew up, “having fun” for a teenager was synonymous with getting out of the house. Now it’s just as likely to mean holing up in your bedroom  with friends and your TV, chatting with them via social media, or making new friends around the globe through online gaming.

As to summer jobs to pay for education, that’s become a joke. My summer employment provided about half the cost of my college education. When my son took his first summer job, I tried promoting a strong college savings program. Some simple arithmetic made me realize that everything he could save all summer wouldn’t cover his student activity fees, much less make any dent in his tuition. If a student is paying all or part of his educational costs now, it’s by working year-round. The rest just graduate with a huge debt.

So, like most “sudden” demographic shifts, this one turns out to have many reasons. A shift in the full-time workforce, fewer entry-level or temporary positions, greater accessibility to resume-building alternatives, recreational options, lower travel costs and educational expenses that render summer income moot; all play a part.

How does this affect small business? Our paradigm when hiring for entry-level positions has changed. I hear it from owners on a regular basis. “He (or she) is twenty-something years old. By this time he should know that you have to show up on time, are expected to put in a full day’s work, and can’t ask for time off after only a few weeks on the job.”

Well, maybe he should know, but he doesn’t. Increasingly, an employee’s first job after college is his first job…period. Small business has always been the basic training ground for careers. Now it is the training program for work. Large corporations can afford to put new employees through extensive orientation on work habits and job expectations. Small business usually needs them to be productive from the first day.

If you can’t invest in basic training, look at that resume carefully for how the summers were spent. If there is a job or other structured activity, don’t just check it off. Find out what the prospective employee did, whether he stayed for the expected period, how he left and what he learned. It can save a lot of frustration for both parties.

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2 Responses to The Extinction of the Summer Job

  1. Hi John,
    Whoa, this describes the situation exactly (except I don’t know of any “middle class” folks that can afford summers in Europe)! As Chief Moderator at BizSugar, I feel your article hits home to small business owners the fact that most young people — not millennials, but generation Z, those who are about ages 15 through about 18–will be entering the job market with far, far less practical experience than even the millennials, let alone Gen X or the boomers, and this message may really deter them from giving these young folks a chance. As minimum wage jobs go up to provide underemployed adults with a means of providing for their families, perhaps it’s a good idea for small business owners to re-create those summer jobs of the past, by hiring a kid to scan some documents, run errands, do a little of this and of that and above all, get used to talking to customers and dealing with people. As a parent, I’d like to see this, but from the SMB’s perspective, they might not have the extra cash lying around after they pay the grownups.
    Hmm….food for thought.

    • John F. Dini says:

      Your point is well made, Heather. A new generation is coming into the workplace with less work experience than any before. It will be interesting, to say the least. Thanks for your input.

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