Skills teens need to learn to get - and keep - a job

IT IS NEARLY time for school to begin again, and my 17-year-old daughter is still looking for a summer job.

Actually, Jessie is looking for another summer job, having amicably separated from her first employer because she was too busy to work.


Like so many teens, she was caught in the vise between earning the money to pay for college and attending the sports camps, SAT preparation classes and admissions interviews that will help her go to college. She probably won't find a job because there are none to be had.

This has been the worst summer for teen employment, some officials say, in at least 40 years and possibly since the Great Depression. In any case, it is a far cry from three years ago, when teens turned up their noses at minimum-wage jobs and pizza joints were offering $500 signing bonuses to attract workers.


That's because the country is mired in what is being called a "jobless recovery," and teens are competing with college students, college grads, displaced workers and retirees for whatever jobs are out there.

And the older workers have it all over teens because they are "workplace ready," and have what are called "soft skills."

In short, they know how to apply for a job and keep it, how to please a boss and the customers.

"Up until now, the only relationship a teen has known has been parent-to-child," says Renee Ward, founder and chief executive of, an online career center for employers and teens.

"They don't understand the relationship between a business and an employee."

Between overworked guidance counselors and overworked parents, there is no one to teach them "that you can't bring what you learned from Jerry Springer into the workplace," Ward says.

The first step in job hunting - filling out an application - is more complicated than it was in our day and, "If you can't even put your last name first, the way it says, your application is going to end up in the trash," says Ward.

Misspellings and grammatical errors also doom the applicant.


"The application is your first impression, and you'd be amazed at what people do on those applications," says Shawn Boyer, CEO of, the Web's largest part-time and hourly job site, which dedicates 70 percent of its database to 16- to 24-year-olds.

In any case, employers are swamped with applicants these days, and they don't have the time or patience to evaluate them or arrange for an interview. So, more often than not, they rely on word-of-mouth recommendations.

"And how do teens get into that loop?" asks Ward. "How do they learn to network, unless there is someone to teach them?"

And teens need to learn a few more things before they will be worth hiring, Ward says.

They need listening skills - basic eye contact goes a long way toward convincing a customer or a boss that they are listening.

They must speak articulately. The slang, curse words and verbal short-hand they use with friends won't cut it with a boss or a customer.


They need problem-solving skills because "I'm new here, I don't know," won't cut it with anybody.

Conflict resolution - a staple of almost every elementary and middle-school curriculum, and a survival skill in high school - is also important in the workplace.

Teens need to use a skill they probably don't know they have: group work and team building.

Almost all teens have been on a sports team or in a club or in a play - or they have worked together on a classroom project. Those are the kinds of "soft skills" they will need on the job.

"These are the things an employer means when he says, 'I'm looking for people with experience,'" says Boyer. "Not experience running a cash register. Experience working with people."

Aside from these people skills, there are other things about working that our teens won't know unless we teach them:


How many times do you think you can be late before you will be fired?

What time do you think you need to call your boss to let him know you are sick or will be late?

When is it OK to have someone else enter information on your time card? (Answer: NEVER!)

Are you willing to complete your summer-long commitment to an employer, even if something more attractive comes along?

"Once teens get a job, they have to learn the rules of the workplace," said Ward.

These questions and more can be found on, along with Ward's top 10 tips for finding a job.


"Job-hunting skills are important," says Ward. "And if you don't learn them early, you never will, and it will follow you through life."

My daughter's job search is not hopeless, Boyer says, especially because it is August.

"From a retailer's point of view, it is an especially busy time. People are doing their back-to-school shopping, they are gearing up for the holidays and college kids are leaving," he says. "August is actually a good time for teens to be looking for jobs."

Hear that, Jessie?