What teens and tweens need to know to earn their first paycheck
Growing up, if I wanted something that wasn’t necessary (makeup, UGG boots, CDs, my pet rat and all the proper accouterments), I had to buy it with my own money. I also knew from an early age that I would be responsible for paying for my college education while my parents would pay for room and board. (Mom and Dad decided this as a way to guarantee all of their kids would attend classes and do well in school—they figured that if my brothers and I were paying for our own education, we wouldn’t waste it.)
Since my brothers and I didn’t get a weekly allowance to buy the unnecessary items we wanted, I took a job the first chance I could. My first job was delivering newspapers when I was in fourth or fifth grade, and I began babysitting when I turned 12 (only on the weekends!). Other positions I held were as a janitor at the church my family attended, a housekeeper for an inn during the summer, a newspaper carrier (again), a waitress in a retirement community’s dining room, and a waitress at a Mexican-Irish restaurant. And that was all before earning my high school diploma.
So I know a thing or two about working as a teenager. There are a lot of options available, but also a lot of rules and regulations specific to teens younger than 18 in the workplace. If your teen wants to start earning his own money, where to start? Here is our best advice.
First Job Options for Teens
There are a variety of options available to those ages 16 and older (some are even available for tweens and younger teens)—just make sure to check the state’s child labor laws to see what jobs minors can legally hold and whether they need working papers, as well as how many hours per week and what times of day they can work. Our top choices for first jobs for teens include:
Babysitting: There are a plethora of sources for teens to find families who need sitters, first and foremost family connections and word-of-mouth. The two families I primarily sat for in middle school were my first-grade teacher and one of my dad’s coworkers. Other sources available now for finding families are sites such as UrbanSitter.com, HelloSitter.com, Sitter.me, and SitterCity.com. An option for younger kids is being a mother or father’s helper—someone who is there to occupy the kids while Mom or Dad is trying to get work done in the house. One thing I did to ensure my preparedness for caring for children was to take an American Red Cross Babysitter Training course, which teaches 11- to 15-year-olds basic child care and first aid skills, as well as how to keep everyone safe and help children behave.
Camp counselor: For those teens who went to summer camp as a kid and wish they could go back after they age out, being a counselor at a sleepaway or day camp is the perfect option. According to a 2012 Economic Impact Report conducted on behalf of the American Camp Association, 7,000 camp programs in the Northeast employed a total of 190,000 people, with the majority of those seasonal jobs being held by 16- to 24-year-olds. Bonus: Teens will learn valuable skills such as communication, teamwork, leadership, responsibility, time management, and problem solving.
RELATED: Find a summer camp near you
Dog walker: Whether a neighbor needs someone to walk Fido occasionally for a few extra bucks, or your teen wants to make dog-walking a full-fledged part-time job (heck, some people in NYC are able to make a living by walking dogs), this task gets your kids active outside. Plus, if you’re thinking of getting a family pooch, this is good practice for a tween to see what goes into the care of a dog.
Food service: There are a variety of jobs in the food service industry, from scooping ice cream at the local shop to making cappuccinos and lattes in the neighborhood café to any of the jobs in a restaurant, including busser, dishwasher, host or hostess, server, or bartender. Note: The minimum age to serve alcohol in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut is 18.
Landscaping: From mowing lawns to raking leaves to shoveling driveways and sidewalks in the neighborhood, this is a sure-fire way for tweens and teens to earn some cash. Kids: Just make sure you ask your parents for permission before you push their mower around the neighborhood!
Lifeguard: Another (mainly) summer option, teens as young as 15 (some facilities require teens to be at least 16) can take the American Red Cross Lifeguarding course to learn to recognize and respond to aquatic emergencies and provide care until EMS personnel arrive. Lifeguarding locations include local pools, beaches, amusement parks, and water parks.
Paper routes: I had paper routes a couple of times when I was growing up, my first in elementary school in a nearby neighborhood and my second in eighth grade in a neighborhood near school so I could walk there after school. I earned a small fee each week, but the real money was in weekly or monthly tips from subscribers—and especially during the holidays. Check with your town’s paper to see if it has any opportunities available.
Retail: From stocking the shelves at the grocery store to folding clothes at Gap to staffing a register at Target, there are a number of opportunities at local and big-box retail stores for teens. Bonus: Some stores offer discounts for employees—teens just need to make sure they don’t spend their whole paycheck before it gets to their savings account!}
Obtaining Working Papers
Child Labor Laws may vary from state to state, but for the most part, they all limit the number of hours minors can work daily and weekly, and during what time of day they can work. Some laws even limit what types of jobs minors can hold. In order to uphold these laws, minors who wish to work must obtain working papers to document where they are working—and to make sure the minors and employers know the limits of the laws.
In New York, a minor first needs to get an application from her local public high school or school district office. (NYC residents need to visit their local public high school.) After the minor fills out the form, a parent or guardian must sign it. In addition, the minor needs proof of age (birth certificate) and a written statement from a doctor, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant saying he is physically fit to work. Once the minor has all the necessary documentation, she needs to bring the application back to the high school, and working papers can be issued on the spot, according to the New York State Department of Labor.
In New Jersey, minors can obtain a working-papers application from the NJ Department of Education, the NJ Department of Labor and Workforce Development, or from the issuing officer of the local school district in which the minor resides. Once she has obtained the application, she must fill in their personal information, have her employer fill in the employment information and sign the form, have a doctor sign the form saying she is physically fit to work (the school district is responsible for performing the physical examination at no cost to the minor or her parents), document proof of age (birth certificate), and have a parent or guardian sign the form. Once the form is complete, the minor must bring it to the school district office, at which a designated official will review the form and issue working papers, according to the State of New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
In Connecticut, minors must be at least 16 years old (15 for retail establishments during school vacation); have an employer’s written promise of employment, proof of age (birth certificate), and a social security card. In addition, the job must be permitted for the minor’s age according to Connecticut’s regulations, in an industry permitted for his age according to Connecticut’s regulations, and performed during the times and hours of work permitted by law, according to the Connecticut Department of Labor. Once a minor has this documentation, she must take it to the public high school in the town in which she resides to apply for working papers.
I credit my strong work ethic as an adult to my early entry into the workforce—yes, even though it was only a paper route. It taught me responsibility, reliability, time management, and following through with a commitment. It also taught me the value of a dollar at an early age. Yes, I may have wanted the expensive Levi’s, but I didn’t need them when the much-cheaper jeans from Old Navy worked just as well. When I did want something (like those aforementioned UGG boots), I saved my hard-earned money to pay for them myself—and I wore those ruby-colored slipper-like shoes until they had holes in the soles to get my money’s worth.
For some, their first job sparks an interest that leads to their future career. I delivered papers, which got me interested in journalism and led me to publishing; a friend mowed lawns and now owns a landscaping company. But for many, the first job was a way to earn money on their way to success. If you follow #FirstSevenJobs, you know that Tony Goldwyn (President Fitzgerald Grant on Scandal) was a farm hand; Lin-Manuel Miranda (creator of Broadway’s Hamilton) worked the slushee machine at his aunt’s store; Stephen Colbert worked in construction; and astronaut Buzz Aldrin was a dish washer. Even First Daughters aren’t off the hook: the Boston Herald reported that Sasha Obama worked at a restaurant in Martha’s Vineyard over the summer.
So… What’s your teen’s first job going to be?