By Liz Alterman
As soon as my oldest son turned 14, he asked when he could get a job. (This may have been after he didn’t receive the $1,000 drone camera he’d requested for his birthday. Who can recall?) I told him that while he might be too young to collect a paycheck, it was never too early to volunteer and get a foot in the door for the following year.
In the spirit of helping my son find summer jobs, I said I’d make the first call on his behalf and then he could take it from there. Boy, was that eye-opening—for both of us.
The following are four lessons my son (and I) learned on the clumsy path to securing teen summer employment.
How to Find Summer Jobs
Lesson 1: Think Before You Speak
I reached out to a local racquet club to see if they needed counselors-in-training for upcoming summer camps. Soon after, Sam had his first interview.
The day before the interview, I gently suggested that he call to confirm the time. Grudgingly, he agreed. His attempt at leaving a message for his would-be boss, Andreas, went something like this:
“Uh, hi, Sam, this is Andreas. Wait, no, this is Sam! Wait, oh crap!” Then, being completely unschooled in the concept of hitting the pound sign or asterisk to rerecord, he simply hung up as his younger brothers and I looked on in horror.
“Um, Sam, Andreas, whatever you call yourself these days, that call was recorded,” I broke it to him. “Call back, apologize, and this time take a moment to rehearse what you’re going to say.”
Why hadn’t I thought to suggest that in the first place? Laughing and blushing at his blunder, he agreed. I consoled him by saying, “If there’s ever a time to make mistakes in your career, it’s when you’re 14.”
Practicing what you’ll say before making an important call or attending an interview is always helpful, whether you’re 14 or 44. This is a life lesson I’m pretty sure none of us will soon forget.
Lesson 2: Develop Your Elevator Pitch
Temperatures hovered in the single digits on the day of Sam’s interview and I wasn’t sure how long he would be. So, I decided I would sit in the lounge while he spoke with his potential employer on the indoor courts below.
What I hadn’t realized was that my mere presence would make my son clam up like a reluctant mob informant. Together, we stood in awkward silence while the receptionist stared at us bewildered. I nudged his elbow which, thankfully, did the trick. Sam introduced himself and explained why he was there.
Once we were back in the car, I asked him, “So what was with that deer-in-the-headlights routine back there?”
“Well, when we’re together, a lot of times, you speak for me,” he said.
Sam was right. I hadn’t even realized I’d been doing it. In assuming I’d do the talking, he was prepared to say nothing. Big mistake—on both our parts. Now I talk less and listen more.
Lesson 3: Saying “Thank You” is Never Wrong
“So, how did it go?” I asked Sam as we headed home. “Do you think you got the job?”
“I don’t know,” my son replied, staring at the mountains of snow that blanketed the paddle ball courts.
“Well, what did Andreas say?” I continued, wishing I didn’t have to pry answers out of him (and hoping the interview hadn’t gone as awkwardly as that initial phone call.)
“He said he could use help and he’d be in touch,” he shrugged.
“He’s got your email and your phone number, right?”
“Uh…” he shrugged again.
“When we get home, write him a thank you note and include all your contact information,” I advised.
“Wait, me write him a thank you note? Are you kidding? I’d be working for free. Shouldn’t he be thanking me?”
“You’re thanking him for his time and for considering you,” I explained. “And it’s another opportunity to make sure he knows how to contact you.”
“Alright, alright, I’ll do it,” Sam conceded, “but only because he said all the counselors and the CITs get a free lunch.”
Expressing gratitude is an extremely important part of the job hunting process. For my part, I was thankful that I could impart some the knowledge I’d collected while applying for new positions over the years.
Lesson 4: On-the-Job Training is Priceless
I’ll never forget the sunny June afternoon I picked up Sam from his very first day. How I loved hearing my sweat-shiny, smelling-like-summertime son sound like an exasperated parent as he melted into the front seat of the car and said, “It’s crazy, Mom, these kids… these kids just don’t listen.”
Sometimes, even when you’re working for free, the wisdom you earn along the way is invaluable.
The following summer, he was able to collect minimum wage. With the promise of a paycheck, those unruly tikes somehow became a bit easier to tolerate. This summer, he’s applying for a promotion and I’m confident it’ll be smoother this time around.
Looking back, there are certainly things I’d have done differently to prepare my teen for his first interview and initial days on the job. But it’s often in those moments when you’re the least ready that you learn the most. I’m just glad he has the opportunity pick up these life lessons now, before there’s more at stake.
Liz Alterman is a writer and mom of three boys. She recently completed a memoir chronicling her adventures in unemployment.