Working Too Early?

Does working while in high school feed the U.S. dropout problem?
by Jerry Laws

Could working while in high school be partly to blame for the widespread concern about the quality of a U.S. public school education, which rose to new heights with the federal No Child Left Behind law? The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't tell us, but its summary of six annual surveys of youths from 1997 to 2002-03 confirms U.S. high school juniors and seniors overwhelmingly are working during the school year. Working all year is much more common among high schoolers in all grades than is working just during the summer or just during the school year.
BLS did not tell us whether American high school students want to work or have to work, but its table of average hours worked shows that much higher percentages of black and Hispanic juniors and seniors worked 11 hours per week or more for at least 51 percent of their school weeks than worked 10 hours or less. BLS also found there was little difference in the working patterns of the freshmen who dropped out as sophomores and the freshmen who eventually graduated, except that those who dropped out worked more hours when they were freshmen than those who did not drop out--especially if they were Hispanic or black. Among all students who had not received a diploma by age 20, whether or not they worked during their school years looked practically identical for all four grades.

BLS did examine dropouts and work intensity. Among freshmen, 29 percent of those who worked during the school year eventually dropped out of school, compared with 22 percent of those who did not work. For sophomores, 18 percent of those who worked eventually dropped out, compared with 15 percent of those who did not work.

The BLS National Longitudinal Survey of Youth examined only wage and salary jobs, in which youths have an ongoing, formal relationship with a particular employer. Because "freelance jobs" (babysitting, cutting grass, etc.) weren't examined, the percentages underestimate the real extent of students' work. The survey included about 9,000 young men and women born during 1980-84, although BLS excluded respondents born in 1984 because many had not completed high school when the latest data were calculated.

Our culture prizes work. So do I, though I realize it can be one more distraction for an active teenager. My 16-year-old son, who soon will be a high school junior, began a part-time job during the spring semester of his sophomore year. We're keeping a close eye on his grades.

This editor's note appears in the July 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety

This article originally appeared in the May 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Jerry Laws is Editor of Occupational Health & Safety magazine, which is owned by 1105 Media Inc.

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