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February 24, 2005

Today’s high school students choose work over school activities

The common perception that most American teenagers go to school, engage in extracurricular activities such as sports and hang out with their friends is missing one crucial and time-consuming element in their lives — work.

More than half of high school seniors, 56 percent, surveyed by UW sociologists said they were working in the spring of their final year of school. This figure excludes working at home and volunteer activities. Most working teens had jobs paying close to minimum wage.

“The reality is that the majority of teenagers begin working for pay long before they finish high school. In addition to working during the summers and school vacation, many teenagers work after school, in the evening and on weekends while they are still enrolled as full-time high school students,” said Charles Hirschman, a UW sociology professor who is directing the study.

Hirschman presented preliminary findings from the study this week at a press briefing during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“Out of every 10 high school seniors, four were not working, two worked at jobs 15 hours a week or less and four were working more than 15 hours per week,” said Hirschman, who is conducting the research with Irina Voloshin, a UW sociology doctoral student.

“Those who are working more than 15 hours a week are at the threshold of where work can interfere with being good students. Too much work can take away from having time to do homework, as well as participate in other activities usually associated with going to high school,” he said.

The study is based on surveys filled out by more than 2,100 high school seniors from a metropolitan school district in Washington state’s Puget Sound area. The data were gathered from two senior classes. The researchers also have surveyed two subsequent graduating senior classes from a broader range of Puget Sound school districts, but have not yet analyzed that data, and will survey a fifth cohort this spring. The sample is quite diverse. Fifty-one percent of the students were white and 49 percent represented a variety of other racial and ethnic groups. Hirschman and Voloshin found slight differences in employment based on race, ethnicity or gender.

Overall, more than 70 percent of the employed students had what are considered to be typical teenage jobs: working in restaurants, including fast-food outlets, and as sales clerks in stores. These are often minimum-wage jobs. Smaller percentages were able to find so-called “pink-collar” (clerical, childcare and technical work) and blue-collar jobs (manual labor such as construction, farm laborer, equipment operator and stocking warehouses). Girls were far more likely to get pink-collar work while boys predominated in the blue-collar category, according to the study.

Hirschman said students working the typical teen jobs tended to work longer hours and for less pay than those who had clerical-technical or manual labor positions, which tended to pay slightly higher wages.

The study shows modest differences between white and minority students. Whites are slightly more likely to have jobs, to have the higher-paying “good” jobs and to work 15 hours or less a week than were minorities. Minority students are slightly less likely to have jobs, but those who do are marginally likely to work more than 15 hours a week. In addition, there were slight effects on the type of jobs teenagers get that are determined by their grades, their ethnicity and the educational level of their parents.

“Anyone can walk into a fast-food restaurant, but they may have to work 25 hours a week,” said Hirschman. “These kinds of jobs are widely available and students don’t need their parents’ help in getting them. However, some students are slightly more likely to get a ‘good’ job if they have a connection or are considered to be a good student and get a recommendation.

“But remember more than two-thirds of all students who are employed are working in typical teen jobs.”

The study will include one-year follow-ups with all five surveyed senior classes to determine any effects of working on college enrollment. The researchers are interested to know if there are costs associated with teenage work and if working while in high school affects the probability of attending college.

The research is being funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.