The summer of her junior year, Celeste Lavin was looking for more than a steady babysitting gig. “I’d applied to some places, but I didn’t hear back from anybody—and I didn’t really know why,” says the Lower Merion High School alum. “Nobody told me about following up. Nobody told me about what I was getting into.”
Celeste sought advice from her brother, Austin, who was an art history major at the University of Pennsylvania. “We agreed that there wasn’t much out there for teenagers looking for their first jobs,” she says.
So Celeste and Austin teamed up to start MyFirstPaycheck.com, an online resource for summer and after-school jobs. They initially convinced employers in Merion, Wynnewood and Narberth to post jobs on their website. They set up blogs and gave tips on finding references, writing resumes and landing interviews.
Soon enough, they were fielding e-mails from employers in other states. By the end of Celeste’s senior year, the site was listing over 1,100 entry-level jobs and internships in every state and the District of Columbia. Managing the content has since become a full-time job for Austin.
As for Celeste, she’s finishing her freshman year at Smith College and thinking of majoring in sociology. “I mentioned what I’d done with the webpage on my application, so Smith was aware of it when I applied,” she says. “I can’t say if it helped me get accepted, but I can say I’ve gained a real appreciation for entrepreneurial energy. There are a lot of jobs kids can get, and a lot of things they can do with those jobs. For me, coming up with an idea, following it through and seeing it happen was pretty cool.”
This summer, the federally mandated minimum hourly wage will increase 10 cents, from $7.15 to $7.25. Now the bad news: Getting a job won’t be so easy, thanks to the recession.
“Teens are going to see increased competition for summer jobs from people who’ve been laid off,” says Ryan Horner, an industry analyst for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor. “Kids who got a job last summer and assume it will be waiting for them this summer should broaden their search and put out even more applications.”
It doesn’t really matter whether a first job has career potential or is simply a way to earn some fast cash. The real-world experience is what counts. Most high schools offer internships, job shadowing and cooperative work-study programs for juniors and seniors.
“The opportunities for kids to find a cool summer job are better now than they’ve ever been,” says Joe Havlick, a guidance counselor at Harriton High School, whose first job was caddying at St. Davids Golf Club. “It doesn’t have to be retail; it doesn’t have to be food service; it doesn’t have to be menial—though there’s nothing wrong with any of those kinds of jobs.”
Ultimately, it’s up to the job seeker. “And it’s a good idea for parents to step back a little and let their kids take the lead, follow their instincts, develop their own networking, and learn from the experience,” says Havlick. “No matter how grim the economic climate is, if a kid really wants to do something interesting and fun—or just make a lot of money—the opportunities are out there, especially for the college bound.”
Caroline Hanamirian has a passion for politics. The editor of Episcopal Academy’s student newspaper was covering an event where Rep. Joe Sestak was speaking when she asked the Pennsylvania congressman if she could intern at his office. Sestak referred her to an aide who told her, politely, to get in line: Plenty of college kids were already vying for the same opportunity.
What could Caroline offer that the older candidates couldn’t? She forwarded samples of her writing to Sestak.
While her friends were waiting tables, flipping burgers, mowing lawns, nursing a sunburn in a lifeguard chair, or attending leadership seminars in hopes of impressing college admissions officers, Caroline was writing press releases and manning the phones at Sestak’s Media office. “I’m looking into both journalism and politics as a career,” says the EA senior. “This internship brought the two together.”
Caroline’s run-in with Sestak’s aide sounds familiar to Harriton High School senior Maddy Zamost. She was told veterinary science majors were swarming local animal hospitals in search of summer employment. Office managers at the places to which she applied offered little encouragement. She was simply too young, they said.
Finally, Maddy’s persistence paid off when Radnor Veterinary Hospital offered her an unpaid internship. “I come home from work exhausted, and sometimes I say, ‘Wow, I’m so tired and I’m not even getting paid for this,’” says Maddy, who has a broad-based love of animals. “But it’s so fascinating and so rewarding. I’ve worked with iguanas, all different kinds of reptiles, vultures, and hawks—animals that I’d never get close to any other way. I absolutely love this.”
Right about the time he got the itch to travel to Europe, Episcopal Academy sophomore Connor McCarren began noticing that the mailboxes in his Media hometown didn’t match the architectural styles of the homes. So he found a company in California that was happy to have him aboard. He set up a website, MailboxDeals4U.com, and started selling, shipping and installing mailboxes.
Connor’s father, a physician, treats people with MS, so he decided to donate a portion of his profits to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Oh, and he also made enough money for that educational trip abroad he’d been dreaming about.
Harriton High School’s Havlick recalls a recent conversation with an admissions rep from Harvard University, which had a record 27,000 applications for 1,650 slots in its 2012 graduating class. “Even at the very elite level, the direction is very clear: They want kids to work,” he says. “They want to see kids getting involved with the world.”
Are some jobs better than others?
“We’re less concerned with what the job is, than why they have the job and what benefit the student has had from the experience,” says Jim Bock, dean of admissions and financial aid at Swarthmore College. “Is the student living with a single parent, and the job is contributing to the household expenses? Is the job or internship part of a career path? Is the student using the job to exercise a creative or entrepreneurial bent? Is the job demonstrating some unusual or highly developed talent?”
Bock isn’t nearly as impressed with long lists of extracurricular activities.
“We’re seeing more and more students with fancy summer academic programs or leadership seminars— none of those will get you into a selective school,” he says. “If you want to attend Swarthmore, go out and get a job.”
For first-time job seekers, it’s worth noting that Pennsylvania’s child labor laws require anyone under the age of 18 to have a valid work permit, which can be obtained through the schools. Children as young as 7 can perform in theaters, on television and in movies. At 11, they’re free to deliver newspapers; a year later, they can legally caddie at any of the area’s golf courses. For most other types of employment, the minimum age is 14.
Parents and kids who believe an employer may be violating child labor laws can fill out a complaint form online at dli.state.pa.us. “We take complaints very seriously,” says Department of Labor spokesperson Justin Fleming.
• QuintCareers.com/finding_summer_jobs.html. How-to advice for finding that first job.
• MyFirstPaycheck.com. A national listing of jobs for teens, co-founded by Lower Merion High School alum Celeste Lavin.