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Teenagers at Work: How to Crack the Code

Jun 14, 2011

This week's post is written by MSDSonline intern, Maria Young. Ms. Young is a senior at Miami University where she is majoring in Supply Chain and Operations Management and Entrepreneurship. For the article, we asked Ms. Young to share her perspective on being a teenage worker (something she's had a lot of experience with) and strategies employers could use to get the best out of their younger workers. As everyone at MSDSonline will attest to, Ms. Young's perspective is worth your attention and her advice here is applicable to many industries.

Working for a new company is intimidating for a teenager.  Nights before starting a new job I would often worry because I didn’t know what to expect, how I would get along with my manager and co-workers, or what tasks I’d be asked to complete.  From working with employers in industries ranging from food service and sales to technology, I have noticed that my work is most effective when I am oriented into the workplace, my superiors are patient with my learning curve, I work with someone my age, I have job autonomy, and am given feedback.  Here are some insights from my experience as a teen worker on the elements of successful management of young or new employees.

To start, it’s important to understand that the wants of a teenager are not that different from how any employee wants to be treated or managed.  To that end, I’d like to remind employers how a young employee feels as they are beginning a new job or career.  My personal goal when working with a new employer is to show my competency and ability to complete quality work. This process is made easier when an employer creates a comfortable work environment.

One of the biggest hurdles of starting a job are getting there and feeling comfortable in the workplace.  I find myself most comfortable when my employer orients me with the workplace rather than immediately directing me to my first task.  Being a teenager I need this guidance to understand procedures and to stay safe.  According to OSHA approximately 60-70 teens annually die from work related injuries.  I am grateful when managers take time to share information that keeps me safe.

I also appreciate when the business is explained in my manager’s own words rather than reading it from a handbook or a website. It gives me the opportunity to ask questions if necessary and it keeps my attention.  It also helps when little things such as break time, bathroom location, or what to do with my personal items is spelled out to me.  This shows me that my new employer wants me to feel comfortable and open when moving forward in a new experience.

Once in a comfortable work environment, I will do the best I can, but my employer should expect slight mistakes here or there.  How a company and its managers deal with correcting these mistakes is important to note.  Are they calm and showing me how to do things right the next time?  Are they taking the job completely out of my hands?  Are they yelling at me and making me feel bad?  Before my manager can jump to the last scenario, I often wish I could shake them and remind them I am just a teenager whose goal is to do my job well.  I respond the best to managers who take the time to turn mistakes into a positive, coachable moment. That way, moving forward, I can be confident when performing those tasks again in the future because my employer has shown me the best practices.

For the most part, I am a summer laborer like 18.5 million other teens and young adults in the nation.  Employers I have worked for in the past have hired handfuls of summer help and grouped us together to make training easier.  I appreciated this strategy because I am used to working in groups for school and sports.  When paired with an employee around my age I feel more comfortable asking questions especially if they have been working at the company longer than me.  I also like being paired with a new employee because we can collaborate and problem solve.  I wish more managers would use this approach more often because teamwork teaches me how to communicate and learn from others.

As a teenager, I have often started in minor positions with small tasks.  However, after some time, I was able to work up to other roles and opportunities where I was given more job autonomy.  Here I was able to make a difference and add value to my employer.  I wish more employers would consider giving job autonomy to worthy workers regardless of age.  Some of my managers see this as giving up power, but it really gives me a sense of motivation.  I can handle this type of challenge as long as expectations are communicated and there are periodic check-in points.  Environments like this allow me to complete quality work and motivate me to go the extra mile for my employer.

Another thing I have appreciated from past managers is their feedback.  The worst feeling I have experienced at some jobs was not knowing if I had completed a task to company standards.  Not getting timely, concise, private feedback really lowered my motivation and made me question my work.  However, when I did get feedback, positive or negative, whether it pertained to washing off tables or doing office work, I felt more comfortable in my work and with my manager.

Employers should consider using these tactics with new employees, young or old.  These essential elements reveal working with teenagers and young adults is no different than working with any other employees.  The times when all of these elements were presented at my previous jobs, I was motivated to provide value to my employer.  My environment provided me a comfortable workplace, with patient managers, and job autonomy.  I believe if other employers started using this approach they will see more motivated, attentive, and happy teenage workers.

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