Professional Students: Benefits and Risks of Working While in High School

Should High School Students Work?

Many high school students have jobs out of necessity to help support their families; others work to earn spending money or contribute toward a college fund.

In 2014, 22.3 percent of high school students worked, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unemployment for high school-age workers has been high in recent years; however, it shrank from 11.7 to 10.1 percent in 2014.

Working while in high school has both benefits and drawbacks. If students and their families plan well, taking on a part-time job while still in high school can have numerous benefits and help develop skills necessary for the future.

High school students benefit from part-time employment, but they need time management skills

Learning to budget time and to use it well is a skill that many students don’t learn until they’re in college or in their actual careers. Yet knowing how to handle numerous responsibilities helps students prepare for the academic vigor of college.

Going from school to extracurricular activities and then to a job means having to do homework late at night, or, in some cases, working ahead during the weekends in order to ensure everything is complete for the coming week. It’s possible for students to overcommit themselves out of a desire to make more money or because they are not yet adept at time management.

While the line between how much work is too much may seem nebulous, experts have found that students who work more than 15 to 20 hours a week see a decrease in academic performance. Teens shouldn’t exceed the recommended number of hours at their jobs, nor should they spend sleeping or studying time at work.

Federal rules for working teenagers

The Department of Labor sets federal rules for working teenagers according to age. If they’re under 14, teens are limited to employment in a short list of fields that include newspaper delivery and babysitting. With some exceptions, they are also eligible to work at a business owned by their parents.

Teens who are 14 to 15 can work in retail, food service and lifeguarding. Other rules for this age group include:

  • Three hours or less on school days
  • 18 hours or less per week when school is in session
  • Hours must be after 7 a.m. and before 7 p.m. on all days except from June 1 to Labor Day

Students who are 16 and 17 can work unlimited hours, but only in jobs declared nonhazardous by the Secretary of Labor. Once they turn 18, students can work unlimited hours and are not barred from hazardous jobs.

Because teens over 16 can work unlimited hours, they have the most responsibility for balancing school and work. Parents of students ages 16 to 18 should make sure their jobs don’t expect them to work late hours and should carefully monitor work schedules to ensure they don’t violate the legal limits. If students appear to be spending too much time at work, parents must help them refocus on their studies.

Learning in the field: How students can develop skills related to their interests

In addition to teaching students real-world skills such as working with the public and as part of a staff, jobs give them exposure to fields they may hope to enter as adults. A job answering phones, running errands or performing administrative tasks enables students to understand how fields they’re interested in work day to day and what those careers demand in terms of education, skill and time commitment. Furthermore, taking a job in their field of interest allows a student to show enthusiasm and aptitude for that field of study, which makes their application more desirable to college acceptance committees.

Students should think outside the box when looking for jobs to help develop skills related to their fields of interest. For example, a student interested in medicine might want to become a licensed lifeguard, which would enable him or her to learn lifesaving skills such as CPR. Alternatively, a student considering early childhood education as a profession could work for an after-school program or as a camp counselor. Working in the field helps students build job-related skills and further ensures that their interest in the field is warranted.

Teachers and parents can create a framework for successful high school employment

While working during the high school years can help teach students responsibility and other important skills, parents and teachers need to help set students up for success. Ideas include:

  • Develop relationships with local service providers, stores and other businesses that employee teenagers in order to ensure productive (and legal) working environments
  • Help students set up weekly schedules that allot time needed for homework and studying
  • Teach students how to keep a calendar or daily planner, either digitally or on paper, in order to avoid overcommitment and scheduling conflicts

As long as the job is safe, legal, and leaves ample time for academics, working during high school can benefit students, parents and the surrounding community. Students learn skills and responsibility by working, remove some financial burden from their parents by earning their own money and serve the people of their communities.

Caitrin Blake has a BA in English and Sociology from the University of Vermont and a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Colorado Denver. She teaches composition at Arapahoe Community College.

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