Entry level - part of growing up

Posted: Thursday, August 22, 2002

Some of Sue Luckey's new hires get rides to work from mom and need to be taught how to tie a tie. If they get behind in homework, they have to quit.

But then, they're only 14, the starting age for bagging groceries at Super Bear Supermarket and this is their first job, said Luckey, the store's front-end manager.

The first job is one of those teen-age rites of passage. About 13,500 teens worked in Alaska last year, based on permits the state Department of Labor requires businesses to obtain for each teen hired. Of those teen workers, 1,500 were in Southeast Alaska, said Randy Carr, chief of labor standards. Most teens work seasonally, with about 70 percent of the work permits approved between May and July, Carr said.

"We don't track them statistically by type of work, but traditionally you see work permits in the fast-food industry and the hotel and service industry, retail sales, that sort," Carr said.

Food-service jobs are the most common for Juneau teens, agrees 16-year-old Josh Parks. He's been working at Subway in the Mendenhall Valley for a year.

"It's just a fairly easy thing to do. It doesn't take much training or education," Parks said. "It's mostly about the person and how they behave."

Not all teens know how to behave on the job. While Parks is very responsible, Subway Manager Wade Bryson has had difficulty with some of his other teen-age employees. He said only 10 percent of them have a work ethic. For a while he was losing employees every sunny day. They'd just take off to the beach with friends and skip out of work, then try to come back when the clouds rolled in. Bryson has responded by becoming stricter, and in response the teen employees have improved.

"Some of them just don't know better because it is their first job," Parks said. "They don't know how it all works together."

Bryson depends on teen-age employees though, because adults seldom apply for the $7-an-hour jobs he's offering. From 60 percent to 70 percent of his Subway workers are teen-agers, Bryson said. He's found the best teen workers are in school and have very involved parents, as Parks does.

Subway is Parks' second job. He started working when he was 13 as a paper boy for the Juneau Empire, one of the few jobs kids under 14 are allowed to work. When Parks was about to turn 16 and wanting to buy a car, a friend convinced him to apply at Subway.

"He said it was a really fun job and you get free food," Parks said.

Parks has worked at Subway for a year as a "sandwich artist" and now a shift manager. In the summer he works 40 hours a week. During school he puts in half that, working after school and weekends. Parks said he has no trouble finding time to study, but so many of his friends work that it can be difficult to find time to socialize together.

Now that Parks is driving his 1984 Camaro, most of his paychecks go to gas, insurance, entertainment and his cell phone. That motivates him to work, he said.

"As long as I have a reason to work then I'm really going to do my job," Parks said. "I guess some of those other teens really don't need the job. ... Sometimes they just slack off and lose them."

Economists say households today often have mom and dad earning salaries, eliminating the need for teens to work. Nationwide, the percentage of teens working has been dropping, from 59 percent in 1989 to 51 percent last year, according to federal data.

Luckey agrees that most of her 24 young baggers and cashiers are just doing it for extra spending money, but some are bringing money home or saving for the future. Grocery baggers start at minimum wage, $5.65 an hour. One boy with musical aspirations saved for an expensive instrument, Luckey said.

"A few of them are actually helping the families with home finances. We have an amazing number of kids here that are very good to their families," Luckey said. "The biggest thing is college. A lot of them are putting money away for college."

Teens gain more than cash from their jobs. Working at Subway, Park said he's learned the laws of supply and demand, and how food shortages affect prices.

"It's helped introduce me to the business world," Parks said. "I think running my own business would be something I'd like to do."

Even though many of the teen workers are about to leave their jobs as the school year begins, they have a lasting benefit for the businesses who hired them, Luckey said. She depends on her past teen employees to come back and fill in.

"They go off to college, but we get real good workers coming back for summers and when it gets busy at Christmas," Luckey said. "They're available when we have an increased need."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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