Dear Dr. Wes and Marissa: My job stinks. My parents expect me to pay for my insurance and tags on my car, and I have to buy all my own gas, so I have to work after school and in the summer. That part I can live with, but in this town most of the jobs you can get when you're 16 are bad. I am working at (a fast-food joint), and I hate it. The manager is a (jerk), the pay is bad, and the customers are rude. What do I do to get out of this? - Teen boy
Wes: I sympathize with you. I think most adults can. We've all had bad jobs at one time or another. Luckily, my teen job was great. I cashiered gas on the interstate in western Kansas, where I met one interesting person after another, learned accounting, how to make change, run credit cards and how not to get ripped off. In college I worked on-air in radio, and in graduate school I did a lot of interesting research. It wasn't until I got out of school and into the "real" work force that I began to realize how rough things can be. So I can't tell you that employment will become a beautiful and joyful thing once you've moved on. What I can tell you is that bad jobs teach you as much as good ones - maybe more. In fact, everything I know about being a good businessman I learned from watching bad ones. That learning has made my current practice a much better and healthier work environment for the entire staff.
The other great thing about rough teen jobs is that they remind you why it's vitally, desperately, incredibly, unbelievably important to do something other than work when you graduate high school. Not everyone is suited to four-year college, but there are numerous trade schools, junior colleges and technical schools that will keep you in control of your career. There are also Job Corps, the military and union-based apprenticeships. If you want to choose what you do and where you do it, put all your energy into one of these post-high school pursuits.
For now, I suggest you keep working at this job while you explore other options. It is hard at 16 because many employers can't hire anyone under 18. But there are some good jobs out there if you stick with the search and don't get angry and stomp off this job. You can be sure you'll be asked in a job interview why you quit your last job, and you want to have a better answer than "my boss was a flaming jerk." Look for something that interests you, but don't be too picky. We all had to work our way up. That's how you build character. I'm sure that sounds corny, but it's true in the long run.
By the way, I actually think the fast food industry gets a bad rap. It's given thousands of kids their first shot at employment, and for some it's been a vital building block in their later careers. Until you find something you like better, spend every moment on this job thinking about what works and what doesn't and keep that knowledge with you. You'll be shocked at how much it helps you down the road.
Marissa: Oh jobs, the very bane of every teenager's existence. Working when you're a teen is a difficult thing for a couple of reasons. First, to be honest, very few teenagers actually want to work, and secondly, the jobs that we do land are rarely worth the effort. You are not alone in your frustration, but as long as you stick it out, it will change.
Lawrence is a particularly rough place to find employment as a teenager. The good jobs tend to be sucked up by the college students because their schedules are more flexible. This leaves us with the greasy, stinky, thankless jobs.
There are a few "tricks of the trade" I have learned when searching for a job. The first is to start at home. I would ask friends of the family who might work or own a business, if they could use some extra help. If that didn't work, then the next best thing is to have more than one job. This way you can limit your hours spent at each place and hopefully not get burnt out as quickly. The last tip is to start looking early. Try to get a jump start on the "busy" season for applications. If you do not know it yet, the worst times of the year to search for a job are in August (when all of the KU students are applying) or in the middle of summer (when every single other teenager has snatched up every last shred of decent work).
I've worked at six establishments since I was 14, three of which were absolute tortures. It seems that if the schedule works out, then the management is composed of jerks. If the management is kind, then the pay or the hours suck. Whatever the situation, it is never perfect. But I have to agree with Wes that it all comes with a lesson. When homework seems unending, or tests are grueling, your greatest motivator can be a dead-end job; one that will consistently remind you that you have to do something more with your life.
DISCUSSION GROUP: Join Dr. Wes at the Lawrence Parents Network discussion group Saturday in the Gallery at the Lawrence Public Library from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. We'll discuss the importance of peers, pop culture and other challenges in raising today's teens.
Next week: A teen mom has her baby and then gets pregnant again. Faced with a tough choice, she gives up the second child for adoption. How does she explain her decision?