Alex Thorne may be only 11, but already he is learning how difficult it is to maintain his work-life balance.
As the newly appointed chief play officer for Toys "R" Us Inc., Alex has to juggle testing toys, blogging and making public appearances for his employer with homework and family life.
"I find at times it can be really busy," said the Grade 7 student, whose recent workweek included spending two evenings at movie theatres in the Greater Toronto Area to help launch a video game.
He's also learning how to deal with all sorts of people, and to cope with a constantly changing schedule.
"It's really hard work," said Alex, who lives in Pickering, Ont. "You have to do work here, then all of sudden your schedule changes. … Or, you think you have a free weekend, then you have to adjust what you are doing to fit into the new schedule."
Of course, testing toys is a dream job for any kid, but Alex is also picking up skills that should help him in whatever career he eventually chooses. His mother, Maureen Thorne, thinks it is "really good for him" to learn how to deal with different people and changing situations.
These are the kinds of skills that experts say more parents should be encouraging their kids to learn, and that part-time after-school jobs or volunteer positions are the ideal places to learn them.
Not all parents are on board. Some blame the so-called helicopter parent syndrome, where overly protective parents want their kids to have only positive experiences and think that getting a job isn't one of them.
"The reality is a lot of parents don't want their kids to work," said Eric Chester, an expert on school-to-work transition and the author of Reviving Work Ethic. "They think they are helping their kids, when in fact they are depriving them of such an incredible experience of gaining a work ethic and seeing what life is really about."
Mr. Chester said young people often can't get jobs once they leave school because they aren't sufficiently prepared to enter the work force. Many have impressive academic credentials and have participated in a dizzying array of extracurricular activities, but nothing to show they've ever reported to a boss, other than their parents and teachers.
"They haven't been out there," Mr. Chester said. "They haven't cut their teeth and so, when they walk into the workplace, the boss is having to teach them how to work. It's not a skills gap, it's a core values gap."
Some see that gap reflected in the youth unemployment rate, which Statistics Canada reported at nearly 2.5 times that of adults in 2012, the widest gap in 35 years.
Mr. Chester said parents are often to blame for not encouraging their kids to get some work skills early in life.
"There is no better life lesson than a kid working a part-time job, even when they are in school," he said, arguing the experience will also show them what it takes to earn a living. "The quickest way to ruin a kid's work ethic is to hand them the keys to a car they did not earn."
Mark Jackson, managing director in Western Canada of the Hay Group management consulting firm, said employers are looking to hire young people who may not have the perfect experience for the job, but an eagerness to learn and an ability to work in teams.
"It's the ability to understand other people … that it's not just about 'me,'" Mr. Jackson said.
The ability to accept negative feedback is also important. While Mr. Jackson said most young people today are eager to learn, that doesn't necessarily translate into a willingness to hear they have some weaknesses, "especially if they've been told their whole lives they're wonderful."
Of course, not every kid needs to start working by the age of 11, as Alex has at Toys "R" Us, to pick up these skills. His parents felt their son was mature enough to handle the demanding role. They expect the job will be an advantage when he applies to university in a few years.
"This is a really cool thing he can put on his résumé," said Alex's father, Kevin Thorne. "Universities are becoming more and more competitive, and when he goes to apply, I think this is going to be something that … can set him apart."
In the meantime, Alex is content to tough it out in the toy business for the next couple of years. He realizes it won't be all fun and games.
"It's not just playing, it's actually thinking about what you are playing," he said. "People are relying on what I think, my opinion, on how the toys are cool."