What My Kids' Summer Jobs Taught Me About the Job Market

My kids are not very smart. Really.

They're all in high school, and they get decent grades. And, OK, they're pretty good kids. But a few weeks ago my oldest son filled our Toyota Corolla's tank with diesel. My other son, a few years ago, thought it would be a fun prank to throw eggs at a car and chose our next door neighbor's Honda instead of someone much farther away. My daughter made out with her first boyfriend on our street not 100 yards away from my office window. In broad daylight. While I watched in astonishment. These are not people who will one day rule the world, and for that we can all be thankful.

So none of them will be Pulitzer Prize nominees, but, thank God, they all have jobs this summer, which means they are, thank God again, out of the house most of the time. Two of them are lifeguarding at the township pool. My other child is lifeguarding at a local YMCA camp. Yet after reading this past Friday's Wall Street Journal editorial, this does not seem the norm. There are a significant amount of teenagers who don't have jobs this summer.

Some, like the Journal's editors, blame the minimum wage.

Of course, an increasing minimum wage makes it harder for employers to pay for people, but I don't think this is the entire reason why so many teenagers are unemployed this summer, or why our unemployment rate is so much higher. I agree and sympathize with the fact that there are many challenges facing teenagers looking for employment, particularly those in urban areas. But rest assured that even though my kids have jobs, they are no more special than anyone else.

As a business owner, I can explain why.

For starters, all of their jobs are skilled jobs. They are lifeguards. To become a lifeguard, they each had to undergo a week-long course at a local pool, where they were taught and then tested to swim great distances, drag large objects from the middle of the pool and perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for the purpose of saving someone's life (and a note to my daughter: not to see how far one can stick their tongue down their boyfriend's throat). The lifeguarding class cost about $200 for each of them and required a lot of hard work, not to mention the time it took to travel every day to and from the pool.

And, at least where I live, it proved to be a great certification to have. There are no shortages of jobs for lifeguards in this part of the world. There have been offers from townships, camps and private pool services. Each of them could be working seven days a week if they cared to (be still, my heart!), but of course this would cut into the endless hours they spend listening to Jay-Z and talking trash with their friends at the local pizza place. As it is, all three are each working almost 40 hours over an entire week, including weekends. Not bad.

Secondly, they had me kicking them in the butts. I was a lifeguard when I was in high school, except things were different then. I listened to Styx and talked trash with my friends at the local Roy Rogers. But I knew how valuable that certification was to a teenager, so when they all turned 15, I urged them to get the certification. I found out where the class was given. I paid for the course. I pushed them through the training, even though it was still near the end of their school year and final exams were approaching. When one of my sons (who's a very good athlete) found that he could barely swim the prerequisite laps needed for the class, I dragged him to a local L.A. Fitness and trained him. Why did I do this? OK, you try having three teenage kids sleeping late and then slouching around your house all day with their good-for-nothing friends for two long summer months. No way.

This is not to diminish what they did. In the end, it was up to them to do the course and pass it. I could only do so much. And even though I nudged and nudged, they each saw the long-term value. So, to their credit, they put in the hours needed, swam the required laps, hauled out the weights, learned how to do CPR on a dummy (no, not my other son) and practiced mouth-to-mouth without even giggling. And they studied hard on their own and passed the test.

And when the official lifesaving cards were received, they were all proud. They felt good about themselves. They accomplished something. And they had a marketable skill. And to their credit again, they each followed up on a list of potential job prospects (OK, I furnished them the list, too), filled out applications and sat through interviews. They were motivated to do this, and they did it. And, by the way, they're each making more than 10 bucks an hour, which is well above the Federal minimum wage.

From this I learned a few things about my own business -- and the job market.

To get a job, you need a marketable skill. This is not joke, or a lecture; it's just a fact. Check craigslist.com: even with 9 percent unemployment, there are a ton of jobs available for people with certain skills. Pool services only hire kids with lifeguarding certifications. If a guy doesn't have certifications in the technology my company sells, or at least a college degree, or some kind of experience, then I'm not likely to hire him. One big reason why the kids I know that don't have jobs this summer are in this position is because they don't have any skills, or their skills are outdated or irrelevant in today's changing economy. As a result, they're competing with a bunch of other workers for a limited number of unskilled jobs. The same thing is going on in the adult marketplace. Here's the trick to getting a job: if you have a talent that I, as a business owner, can profit from, then you have better shot at getting hired by me.

How can even teenagers get skills for a summer job? In some cases they have to invest. Depending on the state, people under age 21 can take bartending classes. Bars like to hire bartenders who know what they're doing. Or they can take cooking classes. Restaurants like to hire cooks who know what they're doing. I know a kid who works for a tree-cutting service and offered himself out for free during the school year just to learn the trade. Another kid I know who's great at math sells himself as a private tutor to kids who aren't so great at math. Some small firms are willing to take people on as apprentices if it's profitable to do so. I've done this before. Maybe the opportunity will turn into a job like the tree-cutting service, but at the very least, it'll build work experience that can be parlayed into future employment. Again, people like me like to hire people with skills. To get skills, you have to invest.

But I have a responsibility, too. Just like I pushed my kids to get off their butts and get a lifeguard certification, I need to push my employees to keep themselves skilled, because people need to keep up to date or they fall behind. Writing this makes me think how much more I could be doing. I need to send my people to more training and help them get more of the technical certifications offered on the products we sell. Of course, that will help my business, but that will also help them. I do want them to grow and feel proud of themselves, and I also want them to feel that they're responsible for themselves, so that if for some reason they have to leave my company, they've got the ability to find other employment. I'm not going to rely on the government to do this for me. Just like I did for my kids, I need to do this for my employees, too.

Is this the answer to reducing today's high unemployment rate? Not entirely. Business owners like me don't fall for tax credits and other government-sponsored gimmicks. We hire people when there's a need to get work done. And right now, in an economy that's growing less than 3 percent a year, we have less work than we did when the economy was growing at even 5 percent per year. It's that simple. Even so, we will hire people when we see a way to make profit. I love them, but my teenagers are working this summer because every moment they're out of the house is a moment of peace and joy for my wife and me. If someone else can offer me that same feeling, as well as a skill that I can mark up and sell to my client base, then I'm definitely interested in that, too.

Gene Marks writes weekly online blogs for both The New York Times and Forbes and bi-weekly for American City Business Journals. He runs a 10-person consulting firm outside Philadelphia and can be followed on Twitter.

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