What Employers Really Want From Teenagers Today

by Andrea Chacos
A curly-haired teenage girl in a restaurant reaching for a plate
Todd Warnock/Getty

My very first job was at the local sporting goods store, and it sucked. As a savvy teen, I thought spending my days after school in the sprawling mall (where said employment was located) would improve my social life and give me an opportunity to sample all the vittles in the food court.

I had no idea the job would be actual work.

After successfully eating my way through Cinnabon, Panda Express, and Orange Julius during my 15-minute breaks, I became even more complacent and unmotivated, having met my only real goal for the job. I’d restock goods at the pace of a bloated tortoise and hang clothes like my grandma’s idling Ford Escort that waited in the parking lot for my shift to be over. I was also easily distracted with my high-school crush who visited every afternoon trying on sneakers he never planned on buying. The glare of his shiny, pubescent-laden forehead blinded me from seeing my supervisor fuming from behind the tennis display.

I didn’t last long at the sporting goods store. I cited boredom and (gasp!) didn’t like the feeling of being bossed around. I can’t remember how I let them down, but I tell myself they were overly distraught with my inevitable departure. I was a sixteen-year-old employee, needed but not wanted, like a fly swatter on a hot summer day. I said goodbye and never stepped foot in that store again. I know I let them down, and I felt let down, too.

Working an entry-level, peak season job is a rite of passage for many teens. They’re thrilled with the paycheck, but for some, it doesn’t outweigh the steep learning curve they face alone at work. Being on the frontlines in retail is a sweat-inducing purgatory, especially when you have demanding customers expecting service you don’t yet know how to give, like my fleeting winter job at J. Crew. Or the thick skin of armor I had to develop working with the foul-mouthed kitchen staff at a busy restaurant the summer after college. Thanks for the nightmare, George. I still talk like an east-coast trucker on account of you.

Not much has changed with today’s youngest workforce. We still need fresh-faced, teenage employees that don’t know what they don’t know. They join us in body and a modicum of spirit, and if my 1980s-self taught me anything, it’s that first time employment is a field of landmines and not many small businesses have the bandwidth or patience to help fully train the next generation of employees we all need.

I now work for a large, private company that has both the financial means and business acumen to help guide and teach kids how to work. One of these kids happens to be my 16-year-old daughter, and although I’m not her supervisor, I’m in a unique position to watch from afar and then listen to her day on the commute home. My perspective coupled with her point of view gives me a glimpse into what kids crave and what many employers want.

First, we all train specific skills well.

This is the programming, logistics and operations of the job itself. New staff generally master this one quickly and are immediately rewarded as it’s linear in scope and has clear boundaries for success. As employers, we don’t cut corners here because if a kid can’t wash dishes or run the register, they are useless. For many businesses, this is where the training ends as there’s no time for more.

The next thing we should cultivate is teamwork.

This soft skill is naturally taught in group sports, in large families, or when you’re at dinner with your closest friends and must split the check fairly. Only a few new employees have the personality type to absorb the nuances of teamwork right away. The rest of us must be taught how to work with an opinionated, cast of characters with a variety of equally unique skill sets. Many work environments require a heaping dose of teamwork to get the job done and require the patience only a saint can withstand. Therefore, we must create environments that allow space to learn and grow, or kids will continue to leave their jobs frustrated and confused.

Besides teamwork, our society values strong leadership and confident individuals.

In the work world, these attributes aren’t born overnight, they take years of missteps in a trusted setting before they’re fully developed. The right employers have the desire, forethought, and emotional capacity to work with young staff to develop their grit and decision-making skills. This is not a short-term solution to our workforce shortage but can be a long-term success story if we have the patience to see it through.

Teens can and should impress us every day. Most of them are still learning the basics like arriving (anywhere) on time, wearing deodorant, and saying good morning to the intimidating, cranky employee standing by the water cooler. This is cause for celebration as new employees do not come pre-programmed to know how to navigate our work world. They are teens in training, and one day they’ll be running the show.