By Eric H. Weyand, Phd
“Learning to read by the third grade is an important milestone in a child’s education; but when should a child learn to work?”
Studies indicate that a person’s first job is starting later in life. The Resolution Foundation cites the average age for a person to start their first job is now 18 years of age, which is up from 16 years two decades ago. In the year 2000, the percentage of people (16-19 years of age) enrolled in school and working was 30%. In 2019, this working percentage has dropped to 17%, and is likely lower now. Work opportunities for young people are going in the wrong direction.
“Learning to read”, is an important milestone in youth development. Studies have demonstrated that being proficient in reading by a certain age (around the end of third grade – on or above grade level) is the single greatest predictor of academic and overall lifelong success. Likewise, a third grader that struggles with reading is unlikely to graduate high school (The National Research Council). These students are also more likely to have low self-esteem, shame, and feel powerless; often resulting in lower earnings, poor health, and higher rates of incarceration (The Lifelong Impact of Illiteracy, By Jennifer Gunn, resilienteducator.com; McKinsey & Company’s The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools).
The same might be true for the younger generation that fails to start work early. There is a saying in academia that goes along the lines of “children are learning to read through third grade” while after third grade “children learn by reading”. But what about “learning to work”? Like reading, is there a critical age at which “learning to work” should be achieved by, to best help younger persons become successful in life by “working to learn.”
It begins by teaching children in the home how to do chores and establishing a work ethic, but a community effort needs to be taken to teach “learning to work” outside the family environment. The Federal Minimum age to work is 14, yet at this age kids generally know little about work and struggle to find their first jobs.
In my experience as a local employer in the area for many years, I have hired employees of the younger generation for their first job and have seen firsthand the benefits that work provides. Working provides profound benefits, including instilling a sense of self accomplishment and self-worth for those who need it most. Working also helps foster better communication by completing tasks with co-workers and drives the creation of critical people skills essential for success in life. Receiving a paycheck at the end of the week is rewarding and empowering because it begins the process of paying your own way in life and increasing opportunities ahead.
High minimum wage requirements now come at the cost of hiring younger generations of people. There are now and will continue to be fewer jobs for younger employees should this trend continue (The effects of minimum wages on youth employment and income, Charlene Marie Kaalenkoski, wol.iza.org).
A high minimum wage overlooks the cost of lost jobs on youth employment and ignores the benefits of work itself for younger generations. Young people simply need an opportunity to “learn how to work,” not to be stifled by a lack of employment opportunities caused by an ever-increasing minimum wage, which gives jobs to a few rather than the many kids who need it.
State legislators, local government officials, school administrators, and owners of small businesses need to work together to develop programs that will provide early work opportunities for teenagers. “Learning to work through 9th – 10th Grade” (average age is 14 and 15) would be a good starting point and I believe it is just as important as “learning to read through 3rd grade”.