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High school employment
September 29, 1997
Researcher says teens who work fall behind at school

They're flipping burgers in fast-food restaurants and offering "paper or plastic" in supermarkets. They're manning mall cash registers and mowing our lawns. America's teenagers seem to work everywhere.

Many parents encourage such work and policy makers support it. But is the part-time teenage workforce sacrificing an education for extra spending money?

According to sociologist Ralph McNeal, more than half of 10th graders and almost all 11th and 12th graders work at some time during the school year. They are working to run their cars, buy clothing or earn spending money, he says.

Some studies have indicated that teen employment builds self-esteem and character and increases academic achievement and commitment, while other research has concluded that it may increase the likelihood of a student's dropping out of high school, McNeal says.

Most of that research has been limited to examining the number of hours teenagers work and the high school dropout rate, however, and has concluded that "a little bit of work is good for kids; a lot of work is bad for them," says McNeal, an assistant professor of sociology. But, he says, "given the complexities of today's employment possibilities for adolescents, examining the relationship between work and dropping out should encompass more than just employment intensity."

McNeal, in a recent study published in Sociology of Education, concluded that the kind of work is just as important as the number of hours students work, in terms of the effect on dropping out of school. Using a database of nearly 20,500, McNeal looked at students working in retail, the service sector (such as fast-food restaurants), manufacturing, farming, baby sitting and lawn care. He also took into account characteristics such as economic status, school performance, extracurricular activities, social class, race and gender.

He found that there was a higher dropout rate associated with certain types of jobs. He says students in retail, service and manufacturing jobs were more likely, on average, to drop out than were non-workers; and that those employed in traditional jobs, such as mowing lawns or babysitting, were significantly less likely to drop out.

Beyond the type of job, there was also a relationship between how much time a student works and the dropout rate, he says. As the number of hours worked increased for retail, service and manufacturing jobs, the likelihood of a student dropping out increased even more, he says.

The various occupations studied differ in terms of the work experience they offer, McNeal adds.

"If you work at a fast food restaurant, you're given your shift, that's your job. It's a real place of employment," he says. It's much more rigid than a lawn job, impinges more on a teen's time and restricts more of what the student can do in terms of school involvement and extracurricular activities. With lawn work or babysitting, the teen can decide when and if they want to do the work. If they're too busy, they can turn down the work.

"Most employers in retail and service have very narrow conceptualizations of what the worker is and what the worker does," McNeal says. These jobs are routine. "When you go to a fast food restaurant, they all say the same thing: 'Would you like fries with that, have a nice day,'" McNeal says. The cash register even tells them how much change to give back.

"It doesn't make their work experience necessarily a valuable one. It doesn't require them to use critical thinking skills; it doesn't require them to be very analytic, and it doesn't require them to develop a strong sense of self or autonomy. But it does serve a purpose from the adolescent's point of view: It does give them pocket money," he says.

McNeal also found that women working in the service sector are more likely to drop out of high school then are men. "We typically try to track women into office and clerical positions in the service sector," McNeal says. We tend to socialize women into these jobs, especially if they aren't going on to college. So if you are in a service sector or retail job while in high school and you're a good worker, you're usually given more hours and eventually you're given an assistant manager-type of title. For those who aren't college-bound, they're making money - this is the job that they're probably going to get when they graduate anyway, they think."

In manufacturing jobs, there is the lure of big dollars and promotion for teens, McNeal says. They're in jobs with real salaries, significant dollars in a non-peer culture, he says. Some literature says that being in these adult-based work environments should be positive because the adults at the workplace will reinforce the students being in school. But that is not the case, McNeal maintains.

"People are not going to drop out to babysit or cut lawns for a career," McNeal says. They're more likely to drop out, however if a fellow worker says, "I started here when I was in high school, and I've done pretty well and make $30,000 annually."

Some studies have concluded that working affects teens'self-esteem negatively; others have argued that it has a positive effect. McNeal says it depends on the job.

"If you have people who are in demoralizing types of jobs, where they are not working with very egalitarian work practices or very open experiences, it is probably depressing to their self-esteem. On the other hand, if you have a mom-and-pop jewelry store hiring one or two high school students and they teach them about the business and are concerned when the students' exams are or when they have papers due, then that can be very positive," McNeal says.

Based on his research, however, McNeal believes that for the most part, teenagers who are in high school shouldn't work. "Part-time employment during the school year almost regardless of the type of job is bad (for teenagers) and the relationship to their increased propensity to drop out starts increasing from the day they start to work," he says.

Instead, he recommends getting teens involved in school activities, community and religious organizations. "It teaches the value of hard work, how to structure time and how to keep a commitment and follow through."

Sherry Fisher