When I was in high school, I had a rare opportunity to travel to France for two and a half weeks with my French teacher. I so desperately wanted to be able to go, but the trip costs were far more than my parents would be able to afford. Faced with the possibility of missing out, I decided I would get a job and pay for the trip myself.
Over the next year, I worked at the Dairy Queen down the street from my house–a sticky, gross and exhausting job. Undeterred even in hot summers, I worked as many hours as I needed in order to make sure I had enough money for the trip. Eventually, I had enough to pay for the trip, spending money, my passport and even had some leftover. It was one of the things I’m most proud of when I think of my high school years, and the trip was well worth every ice cream splattered hour.
I learned a lot from my work at Dairy Queen and all the small part time jobs I held in high school and college. The lessons they taught were invaluable to helping shape me into the professional I am today. They certainly helped lead me to a new appreciation of why Paul extols hard work in Acts 20, saying, “You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'” Yet, in the past few years fewer and fewer teens have been able to find the part time work they so desperately want.
Across the nation, the employment rate has plummeted for teens between the ages of 16 and 19 from 45% employment in 2001 to only 26% in 2011. Where I live in Chicago the situation is even worse, with only 16% of teens holding a job in 2010. The reasons teens are having such a difficult time finding work are, for the most part, outside their control. As the minimum wage has risen to provide adults with a livable income, employers have become more averse to paying such a wage to teens with no experience. “I heard a restaurant owner in San Francisco, where the minimum wage is over $10 an hour, say there was no way he was going to hire a teenager at that rate,” says Michael Saltsman, a fellow at the Employment Policies Institute in Washington. In response, some states have considered a youth training wage.
Adding to the difficulty is the fact that the job pool has been filled with workers who have been unable to find any work in middle or higher level positions. Many have exhausted their unemployment benefits and are now competing with teens for entry level jobs. With far more experience and availability, adults not fill many of the jobs typically filled by teens.
Recently the White House announced an initiative to create as many as 250,000 summer jobs and internships for low-income youth in 2012. The program called Summer Jobs + is a partnership between private companies and federal agencies to specifically address the record teen unemployment seen in this recession. So far companies such as AT&T, Bank of America and CVS, along with the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services have committed to hiring 180,000 teen workers this summer. Even so, teens will probably still struggle to find employment for some time.
It can be difficult to sympathize with teens who are out of work, when so many adults who have families depending on their livelihood are out of work, as well. We may even be a little excited at not having our ministry competing with job responsibilities. Yet, teens who are unable to get a job are losing out on opportunities to learn about hard work, responsibility, finances, and important relational skills that will serve them well for the rest of their lives.
I wonder what would happen if we began to help make connections between business owners and managers in our congregations and our teens, much like we already do with our adult workers who are unemployed. Better yet, can we teach our young people some of these skills by helping raise them up as leaders for ministry? Perhaps we can’t afford to pay them, but we may be able to help build Christian leadership and interpersonal skills that will help them in the future. When teens volunteer, I don’t want to underestimate what they can do. I want to challenge them and use opportunities to grow faith and confidence in their place in the Christian community.
If they are able to find a job, we can support them as they grow and discover how to apply their faith in the workplace. If they can’t, perhaps we can think outside of the box to help create new opportunities for them to use their gifts within the church. Either way, may God provide powerful ways and means for them to learn and grow into faith-filled and fulfilled adults.