Help Your Teen Get a Summer Job

Spring is the time for them to hone their job-hunting skills — and get a jump on the competition.

summer1-234x300Dressed in baggy pants and a T-shirt, 19-year-old high-school student Jesse Fawcett of Victoria visited dozens of restaurants last July looking for a job. Too nervous to ask for the manager, he thrust his poorly typed résumé at the first cashier or waiter he saw. If asked to come back, Jesse couldn’t work up enough courage. Needless to say, he didn’t find work.

Not only did Jesse make several mistakes in his approach to finding a job, he was facing stiff competition. As increasing numbers of Canadians pursue postsecondary education, high-school students must compete with them for summer jobs — and the postsecondary school year ends one to two months earlier. In 2000 only about half of Canada’s 2.2 million full-time students over the age of 15 found summer jobs. This year the federal government predicts a slight rise, to about 54 percent.

Nevertheless, every summer more than a million students do find employment. Reader’s Digest interviewed the experts and compiled these tips for parents and job-hunting teenagers:

1- Work with your child to identify strengths.
If she loves reading, she’ll probably like working at the library. But if she faints at the sight of blood, she shouldn’t apply at a blood-donor clinic. A job she enjoys will launch her into the working world with a positive attitude. But help your children be realistic. “Younger students often have idealized visions of work,” says Pat Slatten, career-information advisor for Gladstone Secondary School in East Vancouver. “If your child expects to design web pages for a high-tech firm, he’ll be disappointed to end up washing dishes.” Half of student summer jobs are in restaurants, hotels and stores.

Encourage your teen to keep an open mind. Since most high-school students don’t support themselves, they can explore different types of work before they commit to an expensive education. And even the most unlikely summer job may lead to a career.

Andrew Corrigal of Abbotsford, B.C., was a 13-year-old city kid when he started bicycling to a farm after school to help out. Before long, he got a summer job baling hay and cleaning barns. Seven summers later, Andrew is studying for his agriculture-technology diploma at University College of the Fraser Valley. “If it hadn’t been for that first job, I wouldn’t have discovered I love working around animals,” he says. “My dream is to become a rancher.”

2- Check the paperwork.
To get a jump on the university students, teens should polish their résumé and interview skills before hitting the streets in April. “If they wait until June, many jobs are taken, and it’s doubly stressful to go to interviews while writing finals,” says Shannon Thrussell, consultant for Human Resources Canada’s Hire-A-Student program in Ontario.

If you don’t feel confident helping your child write the all-important résumé, high schools, job centres and the Internet can help.

Review her history for accuracy and remind her of any assets or experience she may have overlooked-awards for hard work or punctuality, swimming lessons. Remind her to include teams she has joined, whether soccer or a gym-decorating committee, that show she can work with people.

“We look for sports, drama, yearbook — anything that shows the applicant doesn’t just watch TV,” says Jim Shaw, franchise owner of 11 Tim Horton’s restaurants in Pictou County, Nova Scotia.

Help brainstorm for references. Teachers or coaches might provide a letter, or your teen can ask her baby-sitting clients, minister or a family friend.

Don’t forget to apply for a social insurance number, which takes about six weeks by mail from Human Resources Development Canada.

3- Practise for the interview. “The interview is undoubtedly the most challenging part of a job search, and for kids it can be terrifying,” says counsellor Monica Foresta of the John Howard Society in Oshawa, which runs a student-employment service.

Pretend you’re an employer asking questions. If your child writes down and rehearses the answers, she’ll feel more confident. Some schools and job centres will arrange practice interviews with counsellors, or you can enlist a friend or relative.

Employers say the quality they most look for is enthusiasm. “Teens must show that they really want the job,” says Foresta. “Saying, ‘My mother made me apply,’ isn’t the way to get hired!”

Shaw of Tim Horton’s, who hires about 50 high-school students each year, agrees that eagerness is key. “Most students’ downfall is that they’re too quiet in the interview. We want confident, outgoing people.”

Carla Pickering of Parks Canada, which employs hundreds of teenagers every summer, interviews across Canada on the telephone. Last summer she hired Christine Stooke, 15, of Calgary, to live and work in Yoho National Park west of the city, where she shovelled gravel and weeded flower beds. “Some students aren’t happy if they can’t shower daily,” says Pickering, “but Christine was so keen she said she didn’t care if her hair was dirty or if she had to use an outdoor toilet. That was what we wanted to hear.”

4- Leave no stone unturned.

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“A typical mistake teenagers make is doing only one type of job search,” says Slatten. “They read the papers for a few weeks then give up.” Parents can help widen their search.

Use your child’s school and its counsellors. “The more people helping your child, the better his chances,” says Slatten.

Employment agencies can tell you and your teenager about market conditions: Is tourism big in your area or is manufacturing? Last summer Prince Edward Island, with its seasonal tourist trade, had Canada’s highest student-employment rate at 63 percent.

Encourage your child to read newspaper and Internet want ads, but warn him of those that seem too good to be true: “Work from home. Earn $50,000 a year. No experience necessary.” Also, teens must follow directions: Respect application deadlines, and if the company doesn’t want calls, don’t phone. But encourage your teen not to be put off by a minimum-experience requirement; many teens will sell themselves short, downgrading volunteer experience or extracurricular activities. “If he’s really interested in the job, he should go for it,” says Michelle Menheer, employment counsellor with Youth Employment Service in Winnipeg. “The employer might be so impressed he’ll overlook the shortage of paid experience.”

Daniel Stewart, 18, of Winnipeg, delivered résumés and was interviewed often, without success. Then his father, a master warrant officer in the air force, suggested the Internet. On the government’s national job-bank web site, Daniel found that a Winnipeg Wal-Mart needed summer help. He went to the store and was hired on the spot to stock shelves. “I researched the company beforehand, and my knowledge really impressed the interviewers,” says Daniel.

Pound the pavement. Teenagers should look for help wanted signs and approach businesses that appeal to them, even if there are no vacancies. Don’t deliver résumés everywhere, then simply wait for offers. The student who keeps returning is the one who’ll spring to mind when there’s an opening — yet employers report that very few do return. Narrow the search to five or ten likely places, then be assertive.

Persistence paid off for Michal Kaliszan of Cambridge, Ont., who wanted to work with computers. Michal, 17, had suffered muscular dystrophy since birth, so he also needed a wheelchair-accessible workplace. He telephoned employers, faxed résumés and visited businesses until he found the right fit: a family-owned photography shop in the local mall. Michal was hired to restore damaged photographs on computer. “I had some reservations at first because of his disability,” says Angie Santos, owner of the 60 Minute Photo Centre. “But I’d hire him again in a minute.”

Consider self-employment if your teenager is bursting with initiative. Dedicated teens get work mowing lawns and doing odd jobs for working couples and elderly widows in their neighbourhoods. Others make and sell jewellery or operate fast-food stands at festivals.

Don’t overlook the hidden job market. Experts agree that most jobs aren’t advertised. Talk to your friends and co-workers. Teens can network with teammates, friends and relatives.

Hayley Watt, 16, of Port Coquitlam, B.C., had been job hunting for weeks when her mother stepped in. At a church committee, Sylvia Watt had met the concession-stand manager at a recreation complex, and she mentioned her daughter’s job hunt when they crossed paths later on. The manager hired Hayley for counter service, where she’s learning to handle cash and interact with the public. “Not only does Hayley enjoy it, she’s working for someone we trust,” says Watt.

5- Provide lots of encouragement.
Praise from Mom and Dad will salve your child’s feelings of rejection if he fails to get hired. Assure him few people get the first job they apply for. “You are your child’s biggest cheerleader,” says Slatten. But counsellors caution that writing your child’s résumé and calling employers won’t teach your teen how to find work.

You can help your child prepare for rejection and get her to ask rejecting employers for advice or job suggestions elsewhere. If your teen was interviewed, she should write a thank-you letter to keep the door open for future opportunities.

Suggest volunteer work. This is easier to find, and the experience looks good on a skimpy résumé. Teen volunteers usually receive lots of praise from supervisors, which does wonders for their confidence.

Robyn Murphy began volunteering at the General Hospital in St. John’s, Nfld., when she was 14. For three years, she read to patients weekly, played cards with them and helped feed them. When she completed Grade 12 last June, the hospital gift shop hired her for the summer. “Volunteering helped me get a job, but I would have done it anyways,” she says. “The experience was invaluable.” Now 18, Robyn is enrolled in first-year sciences at Memorial University and plans to become a pediatrician.

As for Jesse Fawcett of Victoria, after he’d dropped off about 30 résumés and was feeling depressed about not finding work, his mother, Betty, insisted he visit Career Shop, a year-round federally funded employment service. Counsellors helped him rewrite his résumé, practise interview techniques and clean up his appearance. Within days Jesse was hired by a bagel factory. “We helped him with basic skills, but mostly he just needed more confidence,” says employment counsellor Alison Peever.

His mother agrees. “Jesse was tired of my pep talks. He needed reinforcement from other adults that he’s bright and capable. When he started believing in himself, he found a job.”

To find your local student employment office or to learn more about how to prepare for a summer-job hunt, call the Youth Employment Strategy at 800-935-5555. You can also visit its web site at