Peter Shawn Taylor is a contributing editor at Maclean’s. He lives in Waterloo, Ont.
Everyone’s got a story about their first summer job.
When I was in high school, back in the early 1980s, I was hired by an electrician to help renovate a heritage house in Manotick, then a village south of Ottawa. Expecting to paint the place, I showed up in sneakers. The boss instead handed me a crowbar and told me to rip out the walls.
By the end of the day, I’d stepped on a nail and wound up at the hospital, which provoked a bunch of paperwork, wherein I truthfully detailed my footwear mistake. The next day I was handed that form back − my original liability-inducing response obscured by an acre of whiteout − and told to explain how the nail had conspired to enter via the side of my safety boot. Only an idiot would wear sneakers to a construction site. Later, I stupidly rolled a portable scaffolding unit down a hill, which resulted in a sizable dent to the neighbour’s car. More semi-patient instructions from my boss ensued.
I can’t recall my wages, but I can state with reasonable confidence that, in today’s corporate parlance, I was probably a cost centre rather than a profit centre. Regardless of my contribution to the firm's success, however, the personal lessons I learned through experience – be upfront about your mistakes, inquire about personal safety, don’t try to move portable scaffolding by yourself − have lasted a lifetime. Even as the construction industry has survived my absence.
Ask around and you’ll hear plenty of tales similar to mine. As a teenager, comedian Amy Poehler spent a summer working at an ice-cream shop that required her to play a kazoo to celebrate customers’ birthdays. “Summer jobs are often romantic,” she wrote in a 2013 New Yorker essay. “The time frame creates a perfect parenthesis.” While she learned to appreciate the attention of an audience, the budding actor came to loathe customer service. “I quit when the summer ended. I had started forgetting to charge for whipped cream. I was failing to use the ice scoop. … I wanted to be gone. It’s important to know when it’s time to hang up your kazoo.”
Let’s face it, most teenagers will never be as productive, work-savvy or committed as their more experienced co-workers. They make plenty of mistakes. And given all this, why would any government force employers to pay them the same as fully formed adults?
This week, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney set hands a-wringing in his province by announcing the minimum wage for students younger than 18 will soon drop to $13 an hour from $15. The policy is aimed at high-school students working part-time or during the summer months; it does not apply to youth no longer in school. The president of the Alberta Federation of Labour immediately raged that such a policy is “outrageously discriminatory” for young workers. If so, it’s a discrimination that works in their favour.
Alberta now joins Ontario as the only provinces that allow businesses to pay their youngest employees less than adults; previous governments in both provinces had recently raised their minimum wages by substantial amounts in what was a short-lived national trend. But while higher minimum wages are often hailed as a great advantage for the working class, its youngest members suffer for it.
While most of us eventually come to regard our initial entry into the work world as a romantic way-post on the route to confident adulthood – a wellspring of amusing/scary anecdotes and a few valuable life lessons − the folks doing the hiring have a decidedly less didactic perspective on the process.
Given a choice between seasoned adults and dew-flecked teens – and forced to pay them identical wages – bosses will nearly always opt for experience. At 13.7 per cent, the unemployment rate for teenagers is nearly two-and-a-half times the national average. Last year, the Bank of Canada observed that minimum-wage hikes produce “a significant negative effect for younger workers” (emphasis in original), with workers aged 15 to 19 feeling the brunt of this effect. Teens have the weakest job skills, the lowest output and the least experience. Raising statutory wages beyond their marginal productivity only serves to deny them that crucial first foot in the door.
Lowering the minimum wage for young workers, however, presents employers with an entirely new calculation. Is the risk of their mistakes, the extra on-the-job training they require and the gap in their productivity worth $2 less an hour? Or, in the case of Ontario, 75 cents less an hour? This modest financial incentive can often be enough to swing the decision.
And having secured that first job, teenagers become the beneficiaries of a host of further advantages with both personal and societal implications. Using data that tracked Canadian youth aged 15 over a decade, three academics from the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia (UBC) quantified a variety of positive and long-lasting effects arising from working while still in high school.
Summer or part-time employment is strongly connected to higher income in adulthood. “Not only do adolescents who work develop a habit of working and having access to money, their work experience gives them an edge in finding and securing job opportunities” later in life, the authors write in their research paper, “Beneficial ‘Child Labor': The Impact of Adolescent Work on Future Professional Outcomes.” Working students also displayed better job-search skills and greater satisfaction with their ultimate career choices.
“A lot of adolescent work involves dealing with customers and learning how to deal with complaints or difficult situations,” co-author and UBC business professor Marc-David Seidel said in an interview last year. “Even if it is a job they hate, they are learning important things about what they like and dislike, and that can lead to better outcomes down the road when it comes to selecting future jobs.”
Having a job early in life can also provide a layer of socio-economic protection. “Adolescent work gives you a leg up over anyone else who is not working,” Dr. Seidel added. While high-income teens often benefit from family connections or prestigious educational opportunities, disadvantaged kids can partly overcome these obstacles by starting work early. A reduced minimum wage that facilitates low-income teens finding their first job sooner can thus be seen as a blow struck against inequality.
Everyone finds their first job eventually (or so all parents hope). But given what we know about that initial entrance into the work world, it makes no sense to deliberately delay its arrival by making teenage employees more expensive than they ought to be.
A lower student minimum wage means more summer jobs, life lessons learned earlier, better career prospects and maybe even a fairer society in the future. So grab that kazoo, kids. Summer’s almost here.