I always assumed my oldest kid, recently turned 16 and heading into his junior year of high school, would spend his summers as I did. A child of the '80s and under the heavy influence of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, I worked in fast food or at the mall.
No parents, after all, want a Jeff Spicoli, the film's unemployed surfer dude, on their hands from June through August. So I've encouraged my son to fill out dozens of applications for sandwich-making, sweater-folding and ice-cream scooping. He's cruised the local shopping centers in search of help-wanted signs. He's stopped at most restaurants within biking distance of our house to see if they need a dishwasher.
To date, nothing's panned out. It's starting to look like he might just end up spending the summer washing dishes. But only those of his family.
Evidently, his experience isn't unique. According the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, teenagers nationally face a 24.5% unemployment rate, meaning a quarter of all kids ages 16-19 looking for a job, summer or otherwise, aren't landing one.
This doesn't come as a surprise to Stephanie Mather, the TEENWorks career coordinator at the Goodman Community Center on Madison's east side. TEENWorks is short for short for Teen Education & Employment Network.
"It seems to me as I look around the city that a lot of jobs that may have gone to teens in the past are going to adults. It's just so competitive, especially in the summer."
This city is fortunate, Mather says, that programs like the ones she manages at the Goodman Center can offer a limited number of young workers the chance to learn important job skills, as well as offering the possibility of employment. This summer, thanks in part to additional funding from the mayor's office, Goodman will be offering 20 hours a week of minimum-wage work ($7.25 in Wisconsin) to 20 high school kids in many of the community center's signature programs.
"These kids will have the chance to try out lots of career paths," says Mather. "They'll work in our commercial kitchen, get childcare experience in the elementary school program and gain administrative skills in our offices."
For the second summer in a row, Goodman will also host the six-week, six-hour-a-day Seed to Table credit recovery program, which allows 20 additional students the opportunity to earn a credit of science and up to $600 in lieu of going to summer school. According to Mather, those accepted, representing East, La Follette and Shabazz City high schools, will get hands-on experience in the kitchen, classroom, field and woodshop.
"The work," she says, "will focus on the three parts of the local sustainable food systems: urban agriculture, the culinary arts and food preservation. It's going to be hard work. They'll be weeding, harvesting and caring for chickens and bees. They'll help to prepare over 750 meals a day to be distributed to the community. Some of the work will be uncomfortable -- hot, rainy and filled with insects."
But it's a terrific chance for teens dealing with a lot of instability in their lives to learn that work involves expectations. "We set boundaries and try teach our employees that the real world won't coddle," Mather says. "If you show up late or don't wear the uniform, you might lose shifts, or worse, get fired. But we can teach it in a safe environment."
Brianna (she preferred her last name not be printed), 17 and an East senior-to-be, feels fortunate to have been accepted into Goodman's Seed to Table program for the school credit. But for her, the chance to make some cash is just as important.
"I have to make some money this summer," she says, "because I'm saving up for driver's ed, which is really expensive. This program will help, but I'll also keep working at Pierce's Northside Market at night, where I've been cashiering for the past year. I guess I'm lucky to have found two jobs when some kids don't have any."
Mills Botham, who turns 16 this summer, has beaten the odds on summer employment by putting a new twist on the concept of "living above the store." In his case, it's a vineyard. His parents own and operate Botham Vineyards in Barneveld, and Mills has worked there, part-time, for the past five years.
"A lot of my friends think working for your family's business might be kind of cushy," he says, "but believe me, I work hard for every dime I make."
Botham's responsibilities on the property run from groundskeeping, to working in the on-site store, to bottling wine. "There's always something that needs to be taken care of. I really think of my job as doing whatever I need to do in order to keep my dad focused on the grapes.
"I've met great people from all over the country while working here, and I've learned a lot about running a small business," says Botham. "I think it's really important for teenagers to get a summer job if they can to prepare them for life after high school or college. You need to learn to be professional; it's great to be able to learn it young."
Katrina Hetico, a West High junior, says an early start on the seasonal job hunt was helpful in getting hired at the Duck Pond this summer.
"The Mallards hosted two days of open interviews this past April in order to hire all their game-day staff," she says. "I just went online, downloaded an application and brought it with me to the ballpark. I interviewed that same day and got the call a few weeks later that I had a job in concessions."
Hetico says she's had fun meeting kids from other area high schools. More important, though, is the paycheck: "This was the year my parents and I decided I needed to start paying for some of my extracurricular activities. So the best part of my summer job so far has been how cool it is to get an official paycheck with my name, middle initial included, in the 'pay to the order of' line."
Summer employment isn't just the chance for teens to make some spending money.
"This is the one chance a lot of kids have not just to find out what they like to do," says the Goodman's Center's Mather, "but also to figure out what they don't want to do for the rest of their lives."