When Teens Commute to Part-time Jobs

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This week, the New York Times’ Motherlode section asks: how far should a teenager drive to get to a part-time job?

As part-time work for high school students begins to shrivel up across the country, including in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, some parents are asking the question: What lengths should we go to — both metaphorically and literally — to ensure our teenagers have the all-important part-time job experience during high school?

The article, titled As Jobs Become Scarce, Teenagers Drive Farther to Find Work, focuses on teenagers who spend 30 minutes driving to and from their part-time jobs, and presents this as a relatively new issue.

As a former part-time teenage worker from rural America, I’d like to say: This is not a new thing. At all.

Growing up in a town with 2,500 people, most of us expected to get part-time jobs in another town at some point. Although I did work in my hometown, mostly “freelancing” as a piano teacher or church organist, I also spent some time in high school driving 30 minutes each way to play in a community theater’s pit orchestra, and when I was in college I spent my summer and winter breaks driving 30 minutes each way to work a retail job at Wild Birds Unlimited.

A lot of us did that. And—there’s no good way to put this—there were definitely car accidents on those rural highways. There were so many accidents, including deaths, that my high school formed a group called SMART, which stood for Students in Missouri Assisting Rural Transportation, specifically to make highways safer for ourselves and our peers.

I was lucky and did not get into any accidents driving to or from work. The worst thing that ever happened to me was when I accidentally left my car’s lights on during a community theater rehearsal and had to get my mom to drive over and bail me out.

What I do remember about my part-time job—and it is a point the NYT does not mention—is being very hungry. I’d wake up, have breakfast, and drive to work. Because I was working a six-hour shift, I did not get a lunch break, but since I had the 30-minute commute at both ends, I’d go a little over seven hours between breakfast and dinner. Luckily, the people I was working for were cool about it and, once I felt comfortable enough in the job to ask, they let me start eating sandwiches in the manager’s office when there was a lull in the workday.

But not every employer is going to be that accomodating, and that kind of thing worries me at least as much as the idea of teens commuting. We already ask teenagers to push themselves to their limits, and asking them to go without food, or to navigate a highway late at night after a full day of school and work, seems unfair.

On the other hand, if you’re in rural America everything is 30 minutes away because towns are small, and if you’re in urban America everything is 30 minutes away because cities are large. Limiting teenagers’ options to jobs that can be reached in five minutes is, literally, limiting.

What do you think? Should a teenager commute to a part-time job? Should we get more teens interested in freelancing so they can earn money from home? Are the skills teens learn from “the workplace” important enough to ask them to sacrifice meals, free time, and sleep—and, potentially, their safety?

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