Meet Corey Welk - lawn boy 2.0, complete with gear: He owns two different ride-on mowers. Two weed whackers. A leaf blower. Two snow blowers for wintertime.
He even borrows Dad's backhoe to remove bushes.
But some suburban archetypes never change. This high school senior also has a push mower that, when he uses it, just might make him look like a black-and-white sitcom adolescent straight from the Eisenhower era.
"The people I work for are probably some of the nicest people I've ever met," says Welk, 17. And, he adds, "the money really doesn't hurt, either."
For 5 1/2 years, the lawns of Aston, Pa., just outside Philadelphia, have been the proving ground of Welk's fledgling professional career. He spends about 20 hours a week running his own business, keeping the books, occasionally hiring help and making sure that his clients can look out their windows and smile.
All of his equipment, save for one mower donated by a family friend, was bought with the proceeds from his business. His weekly haul? About $200, or more if his customers want serious landscaping.
Few things say American capitalism in miniature better than the lawn boy. But in a country of after-school jobs at Abercrombie, teenagers with their own, parentally issued credit cards and a growing market of professional landscapers, it's no longer high on the list of what-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation plans.
The number of teenagers offering lawn-mowing services are definitely small, according to Junior Achievement, which surveys teens across the U.S. about their summer job plans. Only 6.2 percent of those surveyed this year plan to cut lawns during the summer. That's a slight uptick over the past two years (5.3 percent in 2006 and 4.4 percent in 2005), but still a fraction of those seeking work.
Today's teenagers are most likely to choose retail, office or restaurant jobs to earn their summer spending money, says Darrell Luzzo, senior vice president of education at Junior Achievement. And they're mindful of developing their resumes for college and future job hunting as they choose those jobs.
"Doing work on their own is entrepreneurial," Luzzo says, "but they're probably aware that in a traditional application for other jobs or even applying for college, it helps to have people who can speak to your performance working on a team, or your ability to deal with others in work setting."
Luzzo points out that some teens may end up mowing lawns this summer because they can't find other work.
"The reality is, there's a hope and expectation and optimism that 'I want to work this summer,"' he says. But "the reality is that not that large a proportion are finding work. So coming up with entrepreneurial activities they can do is important."
In Skokie, Ill., 45 teens in a neighborhood of about 65,000 have signed up to mow lawns this summer as part of the village's Job Match Program, which puts teen workers in touch with area residents who seek help. That number has been consistent for the past several years, says Ann Tennes, spokeswoman for Skokie.
Without such services, though, breaking into the lawn care industry could be tough.
Competition from professional lawn services has growing exponentially, according to the Professional Landcare Network (PLANET), which has seen a 15-18 percent annual increase in consumer spending on professional lawn services since it began tracking spending in 2004.
Sophisticated equipment can be risky to operate, making lawn care a potentially dangerous choice for teens working without adult supervision. For the past three years, landscaping has ranked third on the National Consumers League's list of the five most dangerous jobs done by teens. The risks involved in operating lawn care machinery, plus the presence of pesticides and other chemicals, prompted PLANET to begin working last year with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to create safety guidelines for teens pursuing lawn care jobs.
The grass is greener
None of this discourages Corey Welk, though.
He hasn't decided whether landscaping will be his life's work beyond high school. But right now business is booming. He mainly cuts lawns, but Welk has added mulching and bush removal to his menu of services. (No gutters or tree trimming, though: He's not a fan of heights.)
Welk recently landed a new client whose home is positioned near the entrance to Neumann College. He took the job partly for the exposure: Perhaps it will lead to doing some work for the college, adding a nonresidential client to his roster.
"I juggle coming home from school, and sometimes doing my homework before I go out, and then I go and cut lawns all day until it gets about dark," Welk says. "My mom recommended that I do advertising and that. But I'm busy enough as it is."